Summertime, and the livin' is easy. We tuck away the big cabernet sauvignons and barolos to mellow until fall. We break out the crisp, cool, light-bodied whites to go with fish grilled on the patio or chicken salads packed into picnic baskets.
These days, the wine of choice for such endeavors is pinot grigio. Or pinot gris, if you want to be French about it. It probably originated in northern Italy, where pinot means pine, for the pine-cone shape of the grape bunches, and grigio means gray, for the frequent hue of the grapes.
A decade ago you hardly saw the wine in U.S. shops and supermarkets. Today it's one of the fastest-growing grapes, with California acreage soaring five-fold since 2000.
At its best, pinot grigio is light and crisp, with aromas of camellias, flavors of white peaches and a nice, tart, lime-tinged finish.
At its worst, it's never worse than neutral, unlike, say, a bad sauvignon blanc, which can be absolutely stinky.
In a practical world, this is one of its biggest advantages. From a hideously overpriced wine list, one can always order the cheapest pinot grigio. You might not dazzle your guests, but you won't offend them.
But let's not damn with faint praise. A good pinot grigio is a delight … fragrant, crisp, light, cool, tangy, refreshing, fruity … and cheap. That's the other nice thing about it. You seldom see a bottle over $15.
Winemakers know a good thing. They wisely make pinot grigio/gris in ways that emphasize its advantages. They pick it in the cool early mornings, rush it to the crushing pads, ferment it cool in temperature-controlled stainless-steel tanks and forgo the oak-barrel aging that might dull the intensity of its fruit.
The better winemakers age it on its lies, that is, the detritus of its grape skins, stems and leaves, and stir it occasionally, which adds a silky quality. They bottle it in airtight screw caps because it is best drunk within a year of its release.
Typically, a pinot grigio is lighter, crisper, higher in acid. A pinot gris is fuller, richer, higher in alcohol. In France's Alsace region, a pinot gris might even be slightly sweet.
So, with summer here and vacations nearing, the pinot grigio season has begun.
Ø 2009 J Vineyards Pinot Gris, Calif.: crisp and intensely fruity, with flavors of oranges, hints of vanilla, silky texture and a tart finish; $15.
Ø 2008 Marco Felluga Pinot Grigio “Mongris,'' DOC Collio, Italy: aromas and flavors of camellias and green apples, silky and smooth, lemon-lime finish; $18.
Ø 2008 Hahn SLH Estate Pinot Gris, Santa Lucia Highlands: big, bold and creamy, with golden apple flavors and a hint of honey; $20.
Ø 2008 Murphy-Goode Pinot Grigio, Calif.: golden apples and spice, with a tart lemony finish; $12.50.
Ø 2007 Robert Pepi Pinot Grigio, Calif.: light and crisp, with green melon and green apple flavors, tart finish; $11.
ø Nonvintage Barefoot Cellars Pinot Grigio, Calif. (pinot grigio, symphony, muscat, viognier and malvasia bianca grapes): light and crisp and slightly sweet, with ripe peach flavors; $7.
ø 2009 Woodbridge Pinot Grigio, by Robert Mondavi, Calif. (pinot grigio, sauvignon
blanc, semillon, other aromatic white grapes): light and crisp, with aromas and flavors of white peaches and tart lime finish; $8.