Wine Time

Life Before Pinot Grigio: A Favorite Pinot Gris from Oregon

Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio from northern Italy changed everything.

I'll never forget the first time I saw a bottle of the wine in a Southern Californian gourmet supermarket in the 1980s. The bottle was not the classic green but transparent (a stroke of marketing brilliance) and showed off the wine's bright, straw-yellow color. The ornate label was easy to read but elegant in an old-world sort of way, and the price (about $10 more than a college student could afford) denoted quality in my mind. This wine, which became a go-to housewarming gift during my undergraduate days, forever changed the way Americans understood Pinot Gris.

Pinot Grigio is the Italian name for Pinot Gris: "gray" Pinot, a grape whose skin color falls somewhere between the red of "black" Pinot Noir and the greenish yellow of "white" Pinot Blanc. In fact, Pinot Grigio in Italy was traditionally made as a ramato or copper-colored wine (and there are still many winemakers, notably in Friuli and neighboring Slovenia, who still vinify with skin contact, thus producing a gently dark hue). But Santa Margherita changed all that when its bright, straw-yellow wines became a household fixture in the United States (the wine was introduced in the late 1970s).

The Pinot Grigio "brand" has become so popular here that some industry insiders, such as Dallas-based wine blogger and top Italian wine trade observer Alfonso Cevola, predict that plantings of Pinot Grigio will surpass plantings of Pinot Gris in our country. Even Texas has its Pinot Grigio vineyards and when demand for this newly planted grape exceeds supply, Texas winemakers don't hesitate to truck grapes in from California.

But there are still American winemakers who look not to Italy but to France for their Pinot Gris benchmark. Where the Italians have embraced a clean, bright, excessively approachable (and often insipid) style for their Pinot Grigio, the Alsatians (who live along France's eastern border) continue to make elegant, aromatic and often delicately nuanced expressions of this grape.

Here in the United States, Oregon remains the stronghold of Alsatian-style Pinot Gris and one of my favorites is produced by Eyrie, one of the state's Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris pioneers. We've written about Eyrie here before and their wines have never disappointed me.

I loved the white stone fruit nose on this wine, and its subtle unctuousness in the mouth was countered by well balanced but ever present acidity and minerality. It made for a fantastic pairing with a summer dish of spaghetti al pesto.

The 2009 is available at Spec's for under $20 and it's showing gorgeously right now, a great example of what this grape can be when interpreted by those who remember life before Pinot Grigio.

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