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The Paris Hilton of Wines (October 2, 2008)

I am bemused by the growing popularity of that Paris Hilton of white wines – Pinot Grigio. This is not only a Canadian phenomenon; it's happening in the United States too and I believe it's a fad we imported. South of the border, where they keep statistics on this kind of thing – like baseball – the story is quite telling: in 2007 Pinot Grigio ranked just behind Chardonnay as the second most popular varietal wine ordered in US restaurants. It even surpassed White Zinfandel! No doubt, it's the same situation for restos across Canada, except for the popularity of White Zinfandel.

Frankly, I don't know what the appeal of Pinot Grigio is. Maybe it's because the name's easy to pronounce and sounds Italian and sexy. A generation ago the buzz word was Pouilly-Fuissé, that gulpable white Burgundy from the Mâconnais, jokingly pronounced Pulley-Foosie by those who those who couldn't quite shape their lips into a kiss and then a whistle.

Bear in mind that Pinot Grigio is the same grape as Pinot Gris. It's just a matter of production style. Pinot Gris is usually barrel-aged and has some body and lots of peachy flavour, while Pinot Grigio is made in stainless steel tanks without recourse to oak, making it taste lighter (watery!) and more to the citrus spectrum rather than stone fruit flavours. Sometimes winemakers will leave a little spritziness in the wine from residual carbon dioxide that gives it a prickle on the tongue.

The term "pinot" is French argot for pine cone, which speaks to the size and shape of the tight clusters of this family of grapes (Blanc, Noir as well as Gris). The Pinot Gris/Grigio grape itself is gray in the sense that the skin of the berries can be gray-blue or pinkish-brown. When fermented the wine can range in colour from water white (Grigio) to pinkish copper (Gris). I remember one vintage of Malivoire's Pinot Gris that had a pink-gold colour because the then winemaker Ann Sperling had given the wine some skin contact during fermentation, extracting colour as well as extra flavour. (Ann Sperling, incidentally, is now at Southbrook Winery. These days winemakers move around like chefs or hockey players.)

While Pinot Grigio originated as a wine style in northern Italy, it has now emigrated around the world and even Australia, not known for its wimpy wines, makes Pinot Grigio. Hello Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio.

An American wine writer colleague, Paul Gregutt, writing in the Seattle Times, summed up the curious dichotomy for me in one felicitous phrase: "The Gris/Grigio dual identity is unfortunate (which one is Superman, and which is Clark Kent?)" ...Or it could be Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in the movie Twins?

If I've given the impression that I'm not a great fan of Pinot Grigio, let me say that there are some exceptions that I enjoy. Most of them come from Trentino/Alto Adige, Veneto and Friuli in the north of Italy, from such producers as Tiefenbrunner, Elena Walch, Marco and Livio Felluga (two different companies), Alois Lageder, Jermann and Schiopetto. Some of these producers' wines make rare appearances on Vintages' shelves and they disappear as soon as they arrive.


Five Pinot Gris That Schmeck

Jerusalem Ormoz Sivi Pinot 2006 (Slovenia)
Vintages #73247, $13.95

Kim Crawford Pinot Gris 2007 (New Zealand)
Vintages #680983, $19.95

Leon Beyer Pinot Gris 2006 (Alsace)
LCBO #165241, $16.25

Malivoire Pinot Gris 2006 (Ontario)
Vintages #591305, $19.00

Pierre Sparr Mambourg Pinot Gris 2003 (Alsace)
Vintages #686451, $34.00

Otherwise, give me a wine that's labeled Pinot Gris any day. Especially if its comes from Alsace, Oregon, Germany (where they call it Grauburgunder or Rülander if it's made in a sweet style) or B.C. If you're out there in the Okanagan, try to find Pinot Gris from Mission Hill, Burrowing Owl, Blue Mountain or Wild Goose; if you're on Vancouver Island, Alderlea Pinot Gris.

If I were to choose one region that consistently produces the best Pinot Gris, it would have to be Alsace. The wine used to be called Tokay d'Alsace, but since it had nothing to do with the Hungarian Tokaji, the French wisely decided to drop that terminology and call it simply Pinot Gris. Most Alsace Pinot Gris tend to be full-bodied, richly extracted wines with spicy, peachy flavour. They can range from bone dry (Léon Beyer, Trimbach) to off-dry (Zind-Humbrecht, Pierre Sparr), but can also be made in late harvest style (Vendange Tardive) and even sweeter as Sélection de Grains Nobles, which is equivalent to Germany's Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese wines. In the dry style Alsace Pinot Gris is a great substitute for Chardonnay and makes a very versatile food wine. You can hold the Pinot Grigio for cocktail parties.




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