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

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

Curiously, although most wine drinkers have probably had a fewglasses of Pinot Grigio (pronounced PEEN-o GREE-gee-oh), the grapevariety isn't really well known. Most neighborhood Italianrestaurants include decent bottles on their wine lists, but when itcomes to finding a delicious Pinot Grigio at the wine store, mostwine drinkers stop short. That's too bad, because Pinot Grigio is afascinating grape.

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

Because Pinot Gris grapes are highly sensitive to climate, thewines they produce can taste remarkably different depending onwhere they were grown. Translation: Italian Pinot Grigio doesn'ttaste much like French Pinot Gris, and neither of them tastes likePinot Gris from the States. All three styles are great forsummertime 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 colorand flavor. The best are exuberant and fruity, boasting refreshingnotes of lemon, peach, green apple, and almond. They workbeautifully 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 PinotGrigio show up on the tables of trattorias across Italy duringlunchtime.

Pinot Grigio is also delicious served as an aperitif when foodisn't in the picture and you're just sitting out on the deck withfriends. But be forewarned: Some Italian Pinot Grigios are so lightand bland they're the wine equivalent of tap water -- and are everybit as exciting.

Top producers: Zenato, Alois Lageder, Steverjan

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

Top producers: Trimbach, Domaine Weinbach, DomaineZind-Humbrecht

American Pinot Gris
Though California dabbles in the grape, the best AmericanPinot Gris -- for food and for drinking -- comes from Oregon. TheseAmerican wines sit somewhere between the lightness of Italian PinotGrigio and the fullness of French Pinot Gris, and offer beautiful(though moderate) lemon, tangerine, floral, almond, and vanillaflavors. Oregon, in fact, specializes in the wine and manyOregonians feel there's no better wine and food match in the worldthan Oregon Pinot Gris and grilled salmon, another specialty of theregion.

Top producers: Erath, King Estate, Yamhill Valley Vineyards