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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris: A Gray Area

Pinot Grigio is the single most popular imported varietal-labeled wine in the United States. I wonder why. Great Pinot Grigio is produced in several different countries, but rare. Most often and unfortunately, Pinot Grigio is just a decent quaff that quenches the thirst and doesn’t offend food. Maybe that’s what most of us want; a wine that is drinkable and inoffensive, a wine that does not challenge us. The popularity of Pinot Grigio is the engine that feeds its mass acceptance, making it an inclusive wine, one that everyone can agree on and enjoy.

Pinot Grigio, most closely identified with Italy, is not really an Italian grape. The grape is Pinot Gris (the “Gray” Pinot), found most prominently in Alsace, France, and secondarily in Southern Germany (under the name Greiburgunder or Rulander). In the vineyard, it is hard to tell if the grape is Pinot Gris or Pinot Noir until after color-changing veraison, as the leaves and grape shapes are identical. Pinot Gris is a variant of the Pinot Noir grape (as is Pinot Blanc). Although Alsatians think of it as a white grape, most Italians think of Pinot Gris as red, but in the end this may be a difference without a distinction, as the grape is treated as a white grape in the winemaking process. With just a little bit of skin contact during fermentation, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio should show a bit of pleasantly “gray” color in the wine.

There is quite a bit of fine Pinot Gris available from Alsace and I highly recommend them. Rulander, though very good, is harder to find. Closer to home, some of the more interesting Pinot Gris made in the New World comes from Oregon, the only state that has chosen to focus on the varietal as its representative white wine. The most widely available Oregon Pinot Gris is King Estate, a delicious wine redolent of tropical fruits. Other producers of fine Oregon Pinot Gris: Cooper Mountain (biodynamic), Cristom, Elk Cove, Bethel Heights, Adelsheim, Chehalem, Bridgeview, Erath, and Archery Summit.

While Pinot Gris will always have its small number of admirers, it was not until the introduction of “Pinot Grigio” that this grape found its place in the sun and on so many dining tables around the world, but especially in the United States.

Maybe we just like saying “Pinot Grigio,” a lovely phrase, almost sensual, but now almost devoid of meaning. When we order Pinot Grigio in a restaurant or buy it in a shop, unless we have a favorite that we stick with, there’s no telling what the wine will taste like. I have had Pinot Grigio that tastes like wine-flavored water, Pinot Grigio that tastes noticeably sweet, Pinot Grigio that tastes like cheap jug wine, and the occasional Pinot Grigio that is sublime and memorable. Chris Dearden of Benessere Vineyards in the Napa Valley makes the single greatest Pinot Grigio I have ever tasted. The wine is jam-packed with tropical fruits – mango, papaya, pineapple, with a long, complex, rich, and dry finish. Benessere’s Pinot Grigio has redefined the category for me, and has sent me on an unrequited quest to find truly great Pinot Grigio – from any country (the 2004 Benessere Pinot Grigio is $22 at www.benesserevineyards.com).

In my quest, I have tasted bargain Pinot Grigio that tastes watery, moderate-priced Pinot Grigio that tastes like wine, sometimes pretty good food-friendly wine, but shows no truly distinctive varietal character, expensive Pinot Grigio that tastes like the grape but with no sense of place/no terroir, and overpriced Pinot Grigio that was, well….overpriced and not terribly interesting.

And now the inevitable news comes from Australia that the latest Yellow Tail varietal is - what else? – Pinot Grigio. The wine should be in the marketplace by the time you read this. I have tasted the wine and can safely say if you like the Yellow Tail style (and price), you will like the Pinot Grigio. The Yellow Tail phenomena will very likely redefine the bargain segment for Pinot Grigio: a tropical fruit salad in a glass, with a touch of residual sugar in the finish.

Of course, most wine drinkers look to Italy for high-quality Pinot Grigio, even though the grape is indeed a French interloper, and there are several quality producers in Northeast Italy, particularly in the bilingual (Italian/German) province of Alto Adige, which borders Austria, that make clean, Alpine-crisp wines (Lageder, Kittmeir, Zemmer). In the Friuli Venezia-Giulia province of Italy, which borders Slovenia, Pinot Grigio tends to be richer and fuller-bodied. The best wine regions in Friuli for Pinot Grigio are Collio, Isonzo, and Collio Orientali, and fine producers include: Jermann, Livio Felluga, Russiz Superiore, Schiopetto, Borgo San Daniele, Bastianich, and Vei di Romans. You can expect to pay from $20 to $45 for these wines at retail.

No discussion of Pinot Grigio would be complete without Santa Margherita, produced in Trentino-Alto Adige. The wine that introduced America (and ironically, Italy) to the grape, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is still the benchmark for popularity and for overall baseline good quality. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio is the number one premium imported white wine in the United States, with sales of close to 500,000 cases per year. Santa Margherita makes a very good Pinot Grigio, although many (including me) feel that the price-to-quality ratio is out of whack at retail, but especially when it regularly appears on wine lists at $50 a pop.

I like most Pinot Grigio, and I love great Pinot Grigio, when I am fortunate enough to find it. Last year, on a trip to Friuli Venezia-Giulia, I thought I would find the ultimate Pinot Grigio. I didn’t, and fell in love with Friuli’s unheralded Sauvignon Blanc (who knew?). Still, the appeal of Pinot Grigio is undeniable, perhaps based on its promise of comfort and reliability. Pinot Grigio, a wine for the rest of us.

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