A runner-up, but not second-rate

Today’s sermon is about pinot grigio, a widely loved but poorly understood grape variety.

Although wine-store shelves groan with pinot grigio, it failed to fulfil the expectations that it would slay chardonnay and become the world’s most popular white wine. Chardonnay not only proved unbeatable, but goes from strength to strength, leaving pinot grigio in second place, but still widely enjoyed.

What make pinot grigio so popular is that it comes in a range of easy-drinking styles, partly (but only partly) explained by its two names, pinot grigio and pinot gris. Having a number of aliases (pinot grigio is also known as Grauburgunder, fromentot, pinot beurot, and other names) is hardly unique in the grape world, and in the case of pinot grigio it can indicate different styles of wine.

One benchmark region for pinot gris is Alsace, in France, and there the wine tends to be quite concentrated and luscious, with sweet floral and spicy notes, and some viscosity in the texture. The other major style is associated with Veneto and Friuli, in the northeast of Italy. There, pinot grigio tends to be made in a drier, crisper style.

A wine producer using the variety can use either name, but in practice, many producers make the decision based on the style of the wine. But some producers decide simply on the basis of what they think will sell better, and in North America it seems that consumers recognize pinot grigio better than pinot gris. Perhaps we were conditioned by the flood of Italian pinot grigio on our market. The number of Alsatian pinot gris is very small, in comparison.

If you were to try all four pinot grigios in today’s line-up, you would see that there’s quite a range of styles, with some richer, some leaner, some with more acidity. What all have — and this is fairly typical of pinot grigio — is solid fruit flavours and fresh acidity.

They have the sort of versatility that enables you to drink them on their own or to pair them with food. Drier styles go well with poultry and pork, while the sweeter, richer styles easily stretch to spicy, Asian-style dishes.

Although some pinot grigio is oaked, it tends to be light, leaving bright and pure fruit flavours. As for colour, most are pale yellow, but occasionally you’ll notice a hint of pink or pale bronze.

That’s because pinot grigio grapes are a sort of pink-grey when they’re ripe (hence “grigio,” which means “grey”).

Clearly, a lot of people often buy pinot grigio/gris. If you don’t, try one. If you do, try one from a different region than you’re used to. It’s a variety well worth exploring.

Two Oceans Pinot Grigio 2011

From the Western Cape zone of South Africa, this is lean, crisp and refreshing, a little in the style of sauvignon blanc. The flavours are solid, and this is a well-priced wine you can drink on its own or pair with seafood, white fish and poultry. 11.5-per-cent alchol; $10.25 (295022)

Mirassou Pinot Grigio 2011

This California pinot grigio is in a fruit-sweet style, with a slightly viscous texture moderated by the acidity. The flavours are all about ripe fruit, with some complexity. Try it with spicier food along the lines of Pad Thai or other Asian dishes. 13-per-cent alcohol; $12.95 (274480)

Gabbiano Pinot Grigio 2011

Gabbiano sources these grapes from the classic Veneto region. They make an affordably elegant pinot grigio, with complexity and structure and very good fruit-acid balance. Drink it with well-seasoned poultry, seafood and pork dishes. 12.5-per-cent alcohol; $12.95 (77990)

Manu Pinot Grigio 2010

From New Zealand’s Marlborough region, this is a lovely dry pinot grigio that goes well with roasted poultry or pork, but will handle rich seafood dishes, too. Look for consistent and complex flavours married to a fresh, clean texture. 13-per-cent alcohol; $14.95 (266080)

Email Rod Phillips at rod@rodphillipsonwine.com. Join him online Thursdays, 2 to 3 p.m. at ottawacitizen.com/winechat, and follow him on Twitter at@rodphillipswine

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