Unlike many of my fellow wine critics, I regard the popular rise of pinot grigio as a positive development. My only concern is that pinot grigio is eclipsing many other refreshing, food-friendly whites from northern Italy.
Whether it should be lauded or lamented, the pinot grigio boom is undeniably remarkable. Relatively obscure as recently as the 1990s, pinot grigio is now a contender each year for the title of leading imported varietal white wine in the United States. Decoded from trade lingo, that is to say that pinot grigio's sales here now rival and sometimes surpass even chardonnay's among imported whites labeled by grape variety.
What explains the pinot grigio fad? As the adage says, there's no accounting for taste, and I grant that fashions in wine are as difficult to explain as the rise or fall of hemlines. The most likely explanation is that consumers are increasingly fed up with thick, oaky, vaguely sweet whites and are seeking wines that are cleaner, fresher and more versatile with food.
Pinot grigio fits that bill. It's true that many renditions lack depth and impact, as critics contend. However, no wine in any particular style can fulfill all possibilities. No wine can be both light and heavy, or both dry and sweet. All wine types, when analyzed, tend to show particular shortcomings, and when debating the merits of different styles, it often makes sense to compare demerits as well. I believe that a move toward white wines, such as pinot grigio, that err by being too lean and simple is better than erring on the side of whites that are heavy and laden with oak.
Pinot grigio is not the only light, fresh white wine heading our way from northern Italy. As today's recommended wines will show, vintners there have a knack for crafting clean, crisp, refreshing wines from many different grapes. While these wines, below, are fresh and light, they are notably different from one another in aroma and flavor. Since all are quite young and were made with little or no time in oak barrels, the distinctive primary notes from the grapes remain in the forefront. That makes these wines especially valuable from my perspective, since I applaud the turn toward fresh, food-friendly wines. But I wouldn't want pinot grigio alone to dominate the market the way chardonnay once did.
Recommended wines are listed here in order of preference, with regions of origin, approximate prices, importers and Washington distributors indicated in parentheses:
Gini (Soave, Veneto) Soave Classico "La Frosca" 2003 ($24, Bacchus/ Bacchus) Most Soave is made in massive lots for supermarket sales, but this bottling shows great complexity and class, with layers of interesting aroma, flavor and texture based on a solid core of fruit recalling figs and melons. Substantial but still fresh.
Alois Lagader (Alto Adige) Gewuerztraminer 2003 ($18, Alois Lagader USA/Country Vintner): Fine Gewuerztraminer is always interesting aromatically, with its telltale notes of rose petals and lychee, but many examples suffer from a flabbiness and lack of acidity that make them grow tiresome after a few sips. This rendition shows all the grape's aromatic fireworks and follows them up with bright fruit and a crisp, long finish. I've tasted Gewuerztraminers with more weight and power than this, but never one that I'd rather drink.
Plozner (Grave, Friuli) Chardonnay 2004 ($14, Empson/Bacchus): Simply the best chardonnay under $15 that I've tasted this year from anywhere in the world, this wine crackles with freshness and energy. Vivid notes of peaches and pears show excellent depth and dimension. Also recommended are Plozner Sauvignon 2004 and Tocai Friulano 2004, both $16.
Pieropan (Soave) Soave Classico 2004 ($19, Empson/Bacchus): Subtle but complex, this wine features intricate aromas and flavors and wonderful interplay between soft, ripe melon notes and a zesty citrus streak.
Alois Lagader (Alto Adige) Pinot Bianco 2003 ($13, Alois Lagader USA/Country Vintner): Artfully made pinot blanc is one of the world's most delicious and food-friendly wines, and Lagader's are always among the world's most artfully made. With delicious fruit recalling baked apples and ripe melons, this will suit virtually any moderately robust food suited to white wine.
Zenato (Lugana) 2004 ($15, Winebow/Winebow): A lovely wine crafted from 100 percent trebbiano di Lugana grapes, this features juicy, peach-flavored fruit accented with subtle notes of herbs and minerals. Wonderful for sipping and equally promising for use at the table, this is one of the most complete and convincing trebbianos I have ever tasted.
Venica (Colio, Friuli) Ronco del Cero Vineyard Sauvignon 2003 ($22) and Ronco delle Mele Vineyard Sauvignon 2003 ($33, Country Vintner): These are pungent, polarizing, love-them-or-hate-them sauvignons that I happen to love. The Ronco del Cero is the tamer of the two, but that isn't saying much, as it shows ripe and aromatic fruit with a notably earthy streak. The Ronco delle Mele is a liquid thrill ride with explosive scents of dried herbs, ultra-ripe fruit, and an unusual roasted, smoky streak.
Tiefenbrunner (Alto Adige) Pinot Bianco 2004 ($15, Winebow/Winebow): This is not as rounded or complex as the Lagader pinot blanc reviewed above, but it is brighter and crisper, showing a delicious and refreshing dimension of this grape's potential. Fresh fruit recalling apples and pears is accented with subtle notes of herbs and minerals, finishing with a zesty burst of citrus acidity.
La Cappuccina (Soave, Veneto) Soave 2004 ($10, Siema): A lovely wine at an attractive price, this is subtle but well balanced and suited to all sorts of foods, thanks to its delicate aromas and flavors. Soft but still refreshing, it is tough to beat in this price range.
Di Lenardo (Grave, Friuli) Tocai Friulano "Toh!" 2004 ($11, Downey Selections/Downey, 703-521-1886): Wines made from tocai friulano can be distractingly perfumed, but this rendition has aromas that are expressive without being overbearing. Fresh melon fruit is bright and balanced, finishing with nice mineral complexities.
Ca' Fischele (Gambellara, Veneto) Classico 2004 ($11, Downey Selections/Downey): With delicate notes of pears and ripe melon, this is subtle but satisfying and versatile with food.