Wine snobs scorn Pinot Grigio, but Lettie Teague ignores their withering glances on a taste-a-thon that uncovers some truly admirable bottles.
I've rarely been as embarrassed when ordering wine as I was the month I drank just Pinot Grigio. The withering stare of the sommelier, the hasty retrieval of the wine list ("Wasted on you" the gesture seemed to imply) were almost enough to make me reconsider my request. But I had a mission: to taste as many Pinot Grigios as possible in the hope of finding some truly good wines—even if it meant humiliation and scorn.
Of course, there are plenty of people with very positive feelings about Pinot Grigio. After all, it's the most popular imported wine in this country: More than 6 million cases were sold in 2002, accounting for an impressive 12 percent of all imported wines. And those numbers have only increased: Sales of Pinot Grigio rose almost 40 percent that year and have likely grown larger yet as a boom in domestic Pinot Grigios gets under way (more than 7,000 acres of Pinot Grigio were planted in California in 2004, an increase of 20 percent from 2003). Indeed, Pinot Grigio may soon be more fashionable than Sauvignon Blanc, a grape that's been planted in just about every viable piece of vineyard land in the world (Uruguayan Sauvignon, anyone?).
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Yet Pinot Grigio remains more consistently maligned by wine professionals and collectors than Chardonnay and Merlot combined. It's hard to find a serious wine drinker, let alone a sommelier, willing to put in a good word for the grape. Innocuous and uninteresting are two words I've heard so often I half expect to find them on a back label: "An innocuous, uninteresting wine. Pair with pasta, chicken and fish."
Even before I started my campaign, I'd tasted a few Pinot Grigios that deserved a kinder description. More often than not these were wines from northern Italian regions like Trentino-Alto Adige. (In fact, the most popular Pinot Grigio sold in the United States, Santa Margherita, comes from the Trentino-Alto Adige, where, as the legend goes, importer Tony Terlato tried 18 different bottlings before finding the one that would win him a devoted following and a small measure of fame.)
Pinot Grigio is produced in other parts of Italy too—Umbria, Emilia-Romagna and Friuli, which is home to some of the country's best wines (as well as some of its worst). In general, Pinot Grigio is a light-bodied, high-acid, delicate white, although the top producers turn out wines that have more of everything: more intense aromas, flavor and weight—though no Pinot Grigio is ever as rich and full-bodied as a Pinot Gris, the French wine made with the same grape. Yet the Italians dominate by virtue of amount: There's a lot more Grigio than Gris.
This is one of the problems of Pinot Grigio, as a wine produced in mass quantities is by definition of little interest to connoisseurs. There are some exceptions—for example, Champagne. It doesn't seem to matter that big-name Champagne bottlings can be found almost everywhere (I once found Dom Pérignon in a supermarket next to the cigarettes); the Champenois are able to maintain an image of scarcity and prestige. Perhaps Pinot Grigio producers could use a Champagne-house marketing team?
Then there's the matter of all those truly "innocuous" and "uninteresting" wines. How many are there? Well, in the course of one month I probably tasted close to 60 Pinot Grigios and found that two-thirds could be described using those words. On the other hand, the other one-third of the wines were actually quite good.
Most of my tastings took place at home, not in restaurants. Not just because I wanted to avoid the humiliation but also because I resented the high prices. (A popular wine like Pinot Grigio is liable to get marked up many times, as restaurateurs know it will sell regardless of cost.) For example, the very tall, very thin and very rich customers at Manhattan's Harry Cipriani pay $55 for a bottle of Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio (more than three times its wholesale cost), and yet Cipriani sells more Santa Margherita than just about any other restaurant in New York. On the other hand, Santa Margherita is a steal compared to the house drink, the Bellini, which at $16.50 a glass is more like 10 times the cost of its ingredients.
Of the Pinot Grigios I tasted, about 50 were Italian; the remainder were American, including one particularly good wine from California, the 2004 Palmina Alisos Vineyard from Santa Barbara County. Made by Steve Clifton of Brewer-Clifton winery fame, the wine had a crisp acidity and a lovely aroma of pears (most Pinot Grigios don't have much of a nose). When I called Clifton to discuss the wine, he told me Santa Barbara was suddenly awash with would-be Pinot Grigio producers. "I made my first Pinot Grigio in 2000, and I could get any grapes I wanted," he said. "Now there's such a run on the grapes I've had to plant my own vineyards."
The Palmina label is very spare—a simple drawing and not much else. In fact, I found the best wines carried little beyond the most essential facts, while the worst had labels whose prose went on for paragraphs. "Reward your palate with this gift from the southshore of lake Garda! Enjoy with your friends, and cold appetizers, pastas, fish and salads" read the label of one lousy wine, while another extolled the source of some (very bad) grapes. The exception was the Italian Pinot Grigio from Lungarotti, a very clean, crisp and mineral-inflected wine with a back label clearly in need of some good copyediting: "The decisive characteristics of this varietal, integrated in the Umbrian habitat, confer to this wine a full and well balanced flavour."
As my Pinot Grigio project came to a close, I was truly surprised by how many good bottles I'd found—and much more optimistic about Pinot Grigio than when I began. Who knows, with more winemakers like Steve Clifton dedicated to the cause, perhaps one day the two words most often used to describe Pinot Grigio will be surprisingly good.