Much pinot grigio has a poor reputation – and deservedly so. Some of it is badly made Italian wine that gets shipped to the U.S. and sold to people who think it’s supposed to taste like turpentine. Some of it is badly made U.S. wine, sold by companies piggybacking on the Italian wave.
How has this happened, with consumers paying as much as $25 for bottles of wine that really aren’t very good? Much of it comes from people who want white wine that isn’t chardonnay, and don’t understand sauvignon blanc. Much of it comes from restaurants, which sell pinot grigio aggressively by the glass to people who want something more sophisticated than white zinfandel. In fact, it’s the second most popular white wine sold in the U.S. according to Nielsen, and in 2006 it was even more popular than white zinfandel.
So what is quality pinot grigio supposed to taste like? The Italian version should be clean and minerally, with just a hint of lemon- or lime-like fruit. It should not taste like it can be used to clean paint brushes. California pinot grigio is closer to sauvignon blanc, but without the latter’s big-time citrus flavor and with more minerality. It also has softer fruit flavors. Neither style should be high in alcohol, for they are supposed to be easy-drinking, porch-sipping wines.
And none of this applies to pinot gris, which is the same grape -- but which is made in a completely different style in Oregon and in the Alsace region of France.
What does pinot grigio pair with? Most white wine foods, but especially shellfish, grilled shrimp, and pastas with light sauces. Serve them chilled. These three wines give a good overview of the quality available:
• Estancia Pinot Grigio 2006 ($11). I had not tasted this California wine in a while, and was surprised at how much it had improved. It’s easily the match of wines costing $15 or $18. And, since it’s only 12 percent alcohol, it has an almost honey quality (the lower the alcohol in a table wine, the less dry it is).
• Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio Riserva ($17). Lucio Matricardi, the winemaker for Mezzacorona, says he hates the turpentine-style Italian pinot grigio that most Americans associate with the wine. So he made one with fresh, clean floral aromas and a very nifty lemon, mineral finish.
• Terlato Pinot Grigio 2006 ($22). I tasted five of the most famous high-end Napa wines at a big deal lunch, and this was served as an aperitif. Guess which wine I liked more? It’s very California, with some citrus flavors but also with an orange floral aroma.