True story: I was treating my wife’s 20-something nieces to dinner one night in an expensive restaurant, where the wine list started at $30 and went up like a rocket. The young women were up to drinking some wine in the happy family setting, and I could see they knew little about it and were not going to pay much attention to what they drank.
In my cleverness (or parsimony), I ordered bottles of pinot grigio at the low end of the price list. They sipped it happily and thought their uncle Fred was a pretty nice dude (or whatever that generation calls me these days).
My thought process at the time: Even inexpensive, mass-produced pinot grigios can be drinkable — seldom worse than bland — while other mass-produced wines (especially sauvignon blanc and pinot noir) can be unforgiving of such treatment.
I’ve since modified that position a little due to a couple of painful experiences, but I still believe it holds true overall.
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Pinot grigio seem most at home in northern Italy. Outside Italy, pinot grigio wines often are called pinot gris. It’s the same grape. Both names mean “gray pinot” from the color of the grapes.
In Italy, pinot grigio country is cool, high-altitude locations such as Alto Adige and Trentino, in the foothills of the Alps and the nearby Dolomite mountains.
In New Zealand, pinot grigio is made around Christchurch, in the country’s cool South Island.
In California, pinot grigio grows in Monterey County, cooled by Pacific Ocean fogs. Swanson Vineyards grows it 750 feet up Sonoma Mountain for its cool weather.
Also in California, Kendall-Jackson gets grapes from Monterey, Sonoma and elsewhere and makes a particularly rich and flavorful pinot grigio by adding other white grapes — roussanne, grüner veltliner, chardonnay, viognier, albariño.
Pinot grigio is usually picked less ripe and vinified to be light and crisp, while pinot gris is often picked riper and vinified to be richer and softer and fuller in body.
Good pinot grigio/gris wines are usually light-bodied, dry and crisp, with citrus or green apple flavors. The better ones can take on additional honeyed richness and fuller, smoother, almost oily body.
Both styles are great with raw oysters (try them in a spirits glass as a shooter), shrimp, light seafood such as mahi, tilapia or cod (sample them with a fish taco), with all kinds of chicken dishes or vegetarian lasagna and other tofu dishes.
They’re often lower in alcohol than big chardonnays or sémillons, which these days means 12 percent alcohol or so instead of 14 or 15 percent.
Oh, and they’re usually cheaper on supermarket shelves and wine lists (do I have your attention now?).
Here are some very nice pinot grigios.
▪ 2013 Swanson Vineyards Pinot Grigio, “Morning Sun Vineyard,” Sonoma Mountain (89 percent pinot grigio, 11 percent chardonnay): rich and crisp, with flavors of citrus, melons and vanilla and a long finish; $21.
▪ 2013 Giesen Estate Pinot Gris, Marlborough, New Zealand: light and crisp, honeysuckle aromas, flavors of cinnamon, vanilla and pears, very smooth; $12.
▪ 2013 Alois Lageder “Porer” Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige, Italy; hint of oak, rich and creamy and full-bodied, with intense floral aromas and powerful flavors of pears and minerals; can be aged three or four years; $25.
▪ 2013 Argento Pinot Grigio, Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina: light-bodied and crisp, with floral aromas and flavors of white peaches and minerals; $10.
▪ 2013 La Merika Pinot Grigio, Monterey: light and lively, with aromas of camellias and flavors of ripe pears; $13.
▪ 2013 Ponzi Pinot Blanc, Willamette Valley, Washington: tiny hint of sweetness, floral aromas, flavors of kiwis and melons; $20.
▪ 2013 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio, Dolomiti, Italy: light and crisp, with honeysuckle aromas and rich ripe pear flavors; $15.
▪ 2014 Kendall-Jackson “Vintner’s Reserve” Pinot Grigio, California (79 percent pinot gris, 9 percent rousanne, 4 percent grüner veltliner, 3 percent chardonnay, 3 percent viognier, 2 percent albariño: ripe and rich and intensely fruity, with floral aromas and tropical fruit flavors; $15.
▪ 2014 Da Vinci Pinot Grigio delle Venezie IGT (95 percent pinot grigio, 5 percent chardonnay): floral aromas, flavors of ripe green apples and minerals; $15.