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Pinot blanc merits a spot onstage

If pinot noir and pinot gris are Oregon's lead vocals and guitar, there's another band member that deserves some attention. Pinot blanc might well be the quiet keyboard player, praised for his skill but not one for the limelight.

While lesser known than its more famous cousins, pinot blanc makes engaging, rewarding wines that deserve some time on the table. Since it's closely related to the other two pinots, it flourishes in similar growing conditions, which makes it no surprise that it does well in the Willamette Valley. After all, the climate here is just what these grapes like.

In general, wines made from pinot blanc are crisp, with high acidity and rich flavors of apple and pear. Mineral and spice are sometimes present as well, with the end result being wines that pair wonderfully with white meats and shellfish, particularly mussels.

And though it's true that pinot blanc is generally a less robust wine than pinot gris (or the ever-present chardonnay), pinot blanc is a wine full of charm, well worth uncorking in the depths of summer while contemplating serious issues Ñ such as which day to go to the farmers market or whose BBQ you'll be attending this weekend.

There's certainly far less Oregon pinot blanc on the market than there is other well-known white varietals, but a number of the best producers pay attention to it and are attuned to its potential. These three 2001 wines all come from established Willamette Valley producers, so the names on the bottle won't surprise you, but what's inside might É in the best way.

The Bethel Heights Pinot Blanc ($14) is packed with sweet pear and apple flavors and has a lush nose full of floral and spice notes. It's got tons of acid but stays in balance quite well. The finish hangs on in the back of your mouth, just asking you to have another sip. This wine is easy to like, but it's layered enough to be more than simple. In short: imminently drinkable.

A tad more restrained, the WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Blanc ($18) still has the grape's trademark acidity, but it's not as bright and is softened by some nutty elements in the mouth. It's got plenty of ripe fruit on the nose, notably green apple and some nectarine. What's most enjoyable about this wine, though, is how much it develops in the glass. As it opens up, layers of butterscotch and even caramel come through, so don't be afraid to linger over a glass of this.

The St. Innocent Freedom Hill ($15) is a favorite of the wines I sampled. The nose combines floral scents, hints of mineral and some background traces of smoke, while in the mouth it's complex, rich and full of puckering acidity. Half of the grapes that made this wine were fermented in stainless steel, while the other half was fermented in older oak barrels. This combination lets the pure flavor of the grapes come through while also imparting some richness from the time spent in the barrels.

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