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The Lightest of Whites

Randy Mayor
As summer steams up, chill out with a glass of refreshing Pinot Grigio.

In the same way the seasons induce food cravings (salad in summer; stew in autumn), they also put us in the mood for certain wines. On a hot summer night, who wants to drink a heavy Cabernet Sauvignon? No, it's the season for lightness -- the season for Pinot Grigio.

Curiously, although most wine drinkers have probably had a few glasses of Pinot Grigio (pronounced PEEN-o GREE-gee-oh), the grape variety isn't really well known. Most neighborhood Italian restaurants include decent bottles on their wine lists, but when it comes to finding a delicious Pinot Grigio at the wine store, most wine drinkers stop short. That's too bad, because Pinot Grigio is a fascinating grape.

The Big Picture
What the Italians call Pinot Grigio is actually the French grape Pinot Gris (pronounced PEEN-o GREE). Both gris and grigio mean "gray," a reference to the grape's slight grayish cast. In the United States, which also produces noteworthy wines of the varietal, the wine goes by both names, depending on the whim of the winemaker.

Because Pinot Gris grapes are highly sensitive to climate, the wines they produce can taste remarkably different depending on where they were grown. Translation: Italian Pinot Grigio doesn't taste much like French Pinot Gris, and neither of them tastes like Pinot Gris from the States. All three styles are great for summertime drinking, though. It just depends on what you're after -- and what you're eating.

Italian Pinot Grigio
Italian Pinot Grigios are among the lightest wines in color and flavor. The best are exuberant and fruity, boasting refreshing notes of lemon, peach, green apple, and almond. They work beautifully with seafood salads, grilled vegetables, or simple, light pastas, especially if the pasta has lots of green herbs (think basil), olives, or vegetables. That's why carafes of Pinot Grigio show up on the tables of trattorias across Italy during lunchtime.

Pinot Grigio is also delicious served as an aperitif when food isn't in the picture and you're just sitting out on the deck with friends. But be forewarned: Some Italian Pinot Grigios are so light and bland they're the wine equivalent of tap water -- and are every bit as exciting.

Top producers: Zenato, Alois Lageder, Steverjan

French Pinot Gris
The complete opposite of Italian Pinot Grigio is French Pinot Gris, which is rich, concentrated, and lipsmacking. A specialty of the region known as Alsace, French Pinot Gris is full bodied with flavors of peaches, ginger, almonds, and just a hint of vanilla and earth. Best of all, the wines have a fresh, pure taste, which makes them great partners for light summer fare. In France, Pinot Gris is poured with main-course salads, all manners of vegetable dishes, and white meats like chicken and pork.

Top producers: Trimbach, Domaine Weinbach, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht

American Pinot Gris
Though California dabbles in the grape, the best American Pinot Gris -- for food and for drinking -- comes from Oregon. These American wines sit somewhere between the lightness of Italian Pinot Grigio and the fullness of French Pinot Gris, and offer beautiful (though moderate) lemon, tangerine, floral, almond, and vanilla flavors. Oregon, in fact, specializes in the wine and many Oregonians feel there's no better wine and food match in the world than Oregon Pinot Gris and grilled salmon, another specialty of the region.

Top producers: Erath, King Estate, Yamhill Valley Vineyards