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Value Vino Gris is the new noir

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"Pinot Noir is a notoriously degenerate vine variety, prone to mutate at the drop of a gene," claims wine authority Jancis Robinson. One of those degenerate mutations is pinot gris (pinot grigio in Italian), a grape that is fast becoming one of the most popular whites in California and has already surpassed chardonnay in Oregon. Chameleon-like, the grape is remarkably adaptable to the soils and climates in which it's grown, allegedly yielding characteristics that range from almost-unctuous to light and flinty. To test that theory, we looked at wines from California, Oregon, Washington, and Italy.

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With a little spice and perhaps a bit of green melon, Mondavi's 2002 Woodbridge California Pinot Grigio isn't entirely neutral, but about the best that can be said is that it's clean and refreshing. Admittedly, that's often just what one needs on a steamy, summer day. The just-released 2004 Delicato Callifornia Pinot Grigio, on the other hand, is anything but shy. Far from the flowers and peaches promised on the label, this wine smelled and tasted of rubber and sulfur. It was sealed with a synthetic cork, ruling out normal corkiness, but this was a flawed bottle. Stepping up to the screw-capped 2003 Robert Pepi Pinot Grigio gets us a much more nuanced wine, characteristically faint of nose, but offering nice green apple and lemony flavors that are juicy yet reasonably restrained. This wine is crisp enough to go well with seafood. Renwood's 2002 Select Series Pinot Grigio lets us know by its Lodi label that it comes from grapes grown in relatively warm surroundings, and the wine shows it, from its slightly deeper color to its honeyed nose and flavor and modest spice. It's a markedly different wine from the others mentioned above, yet still quite flexible as a food pair leaning more towards pasta, pork, and chicken.

But, if Renwood was distinctive, the 2003 Hogue Columbia Valley PG took honey and spice to new heights. The color was much darker, the aromas more intense, the body, well, va va voom. This is the "almost-oily" end of the spectrum, and it's a good wine - it's just hard to believe it's from the same grape. With Oregon's Burgundian bias, it's no wonder the 2003 King Estate Oregon Pinot Gris is also a very different animal: Almost Sancerre-like, it has pretty citrus and mineral tones, great acid, and elegance to spare. It was the second-favorite of this exercise. The best, however, was the Italian original, 2003 Tomassi Viticoltori Vigneto Le Rosse Pinot Grigio. It had it all: minerality, citrus tones, green apple, the merest hints of honey, and, above all, a very reasonable price. Yes, it's a versatile grape.


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