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Tasting Notes

Pinot Gris Charms Hardened Chardonnay Fans

January 02, 2002|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A couple of times a year we have neighborhood get-togethers. Since I'm usually deputized to bring the wine, I try to sneak in a little informal market research at the same time by watching people's reactions to the wines I've brought. Most of my neighbors aren't sophisticated wine drinkers, but they do enjoy it, and their reactions have pretty accurately predicted some of the bigger recent trends in table wines, such as the coming of age of Chardonnay and now the swing back to red wine.

Among the things I was looking for this year was a possible shift away from Merlot. That one certainly didn't pan out--Merlot is still the first choice for a glass of red. But I also wanted to gauge how people would react to Pinot Gris. When I open a bottle of this wine for friends, they nearly always like it, and it sells well in restaurants. But many retailers say they rarely get customers asking for it.

So this year I slipped in a couple of Pinot Gris among the collection of Chardonnays and Rieslings. The Chardonnays were emptied first, but the Pinot Gris was the hit of the evening. Its light, wonderfully fruity flavors stand in stark contrast to the rich, toasty, buttery style of so many Chardonnays. As often as not, Chardonnay tries to bowl you over with its mass and depth. Pinot Gris wins with charm and grace.

This is a grape that travels under many different names. Pinot Gris is what the French have lately come to call the grape, although it is still called Tokay d'Alsace by some. In Italy, where it makes wines that are fresh and fruity, though perhaps a bit thin, it is called Pinot Grigio.

It is made under both names in this country, but in Oregon it must be called Pinot Gris (even though many Oregon versions taste more like the light wines of Italy than the richer, fuller wines of Alsace). Here in California, the wines run the gamut in style, and the name on the label is rarely any guide to which style you'll find inside.

This confusion might be one reason why Pinot Gris is still a bit of a slow mover in wine stores, but, if the reactions of my neighbors are any indicator, it's only a matter of time before it catches on--no matter what it's called.

* 2000 Archery Summit "Vireton," Oregon, $24. This wine, a proprietary blend of 80% Pinot Gris, 12% Chardonnay and 8% Pinot Blanc, is quite unlike any of the more than four dozen others tasted for this column. Whether its extra richness derives from Chardonnay or from something else, this is an interesting take on Pinot Gris. It is mouth-filling with an almost oily texture, somewhat in the manner of the fleshiest versions from Alsace.

* 2000 Benessere Pinot Grigio, Napa-Carneros, $18. Though it may be called by an Italian name, this first-rate wine is more in the Alsatian than the thinner Italian style. It's rich and well-stuffed and offers a fascinating mix of peach, honey, flower and mineral flavors. Its energy and depth of sweet fruit give it an unmistakably Californian cast.

* 2000 Edna Valley Vineyards Pinot Gris, Edna Valley, $16. A mix of mineral notes, a subtle floweriness and a firm structure makes this wine somewhat reminiscent of Pinot Grigio, but its higher ripeness and fuller body are the handiwork of California's generous sunshine. The wine balances a slight sweetness with bracing acidity.

* 2000 Etude Winery Pinot Gris, Carneros, $18. Outgoing aromas of apricots and ripe melons immediately mark this as one of the richer West Coast Pinot Gris, and that early promise is followed up with ripe and well-filled melon flavors with a hint of stoniness. The slight sweetness is impeccably balanced by lively acidity, making this wine equally at home as an aperitif or an accompaniment to light meals.

2000 J Wine Co. Pinot Gris, Russian River Valley, $16. A mix of ripe yet bracing fruit places this wine halfway between Italy and Alsace in character, but its juicy center is more Californian than anything else. The fruit aromas and flavors--fresh pears and apricots with a touch of sweet citrus--are direct and inviting and will make this tasty wine another good choice either before or during a meal.

$* 2000 King Estate Pinot Gris, Oregon, $13. I brought an earlier vintage of this to a fund-raiser and I remember vividly how the organizer walked up to me and said, "Charlie, what is this? It's yummy." The newest version also earns that kind of praise for its light peach and pear fruitiness and its firm, balanced, lively finish.

2000 Montevina Pinot Grigio, California, $9. Here is a wine labeled Pinot Grigio that actually tastes like something you might find in northern Italy. Its flavors are light and minerally with a hint of peach, but it has the richer texture you'd expect of a California wine.

$* 2000 Pepi Winery Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, $11. This Kendall-Jackson brand scores with rich, slightly tart fruit underlain by a tinge of mineral. At this price, its quiet charm makes it a real bargain.

$* 2000 Silvan Ridge Winery Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, $12. Another great bargain. This clean, slightly juicy, smooth-textured wine delivers an engaging mix of mineral and lime flavors. It goes down ever so easily, especially at its price.

*

Symbols

***A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.

**An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.

*An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.

No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.

$Good value for the money.

Below average quality, to be avoided.

This column is based on tastings conducted by Connoisseur's Guide to California Wine, a monthly newsletter devoted to the critical review of California and West coast wines. Readers of The Times may obtain a sample copy by sending their name and address to: CGCW, P.O. Box V, Alameda, CA 94501, by calling or faxing (510) 865-3150 or by e-mailing CGCW@aol.com.

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