“I’ll have a pinot grigio,” says everyone, every summer. It’s a go-to white wine on a sunny day—as classically Italian as a stylish headscarf and an oversized pair of shades. But not every pinot grigio is worth the glass it’s poured in. In wine culture, pinot grigio suffers from what the Brits call “prole drift,” when something catches the fancy of the masses and gets pumped out in huge quantities at a low quality and price. Pinot grigio is historically from Northern Italy but once California joined in it really took off. It was so ubiquitous by 2010 that The Real Housewives of New York star Ramona Singer released a label. Now it’s cliché. Every wine shop has a huge, confusing selection and almost all of it is basic at best. But some producers rise above the common herd and are worthy of seeking out.
Good Italian pinot grigio is zesty and even a bit complex with flavor profiles of citrus, apple, white flowers and stone fruit. The upside of its popularity is that good examples only start around $18 a bottle (spend at least $15 to get away from the low-end crowd). A point on the name: the pinot grigio grape variety originated in France as a mutation of pinot noir. When ripe it has a grayish-blue skin. It’s also called pinot gris, but if it states that on the label than it’s a different style of wine.
I tend to stick to an Italian DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata, similar to an appellation) by the border with Austria and Germany called the Alto Adige or Südtirol. I have driven through the beautiful region, the foothills of the Alps are home to steep vineyards and the sun is strong yet the weather is often cool.
A really nice, delicate pinot grigio is the Abbazia di Novacella—Kloster Neustift ($23). To be clear, this bottle actually reads “Stiftskellerei Neustift” on the label. It’s almost Austrian in profile—a light yellow-green with white flowers and a hint of flinty minerals. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the highly popular Santa Margherita Alto Adige ($25). This is from a large producer—it’s consistent and well balanced, if a little coarse. It’s the wine to buy when you want something everyone will like but don’t have time to read all those labels.
I recently tried the Kettmeir ($24) and kind of fell in love with it. It’s sophisticated, big and smooth with tastes of apricot and honey minus the slightly harsh finish that the variety can have. It was a perfect pairing with steamed lobsters in melted lemon-butter and a bitter salad of arugula and red radicchio. Don’t serve it too cold or the lovely nuances will be lost. The reason a white wine starts tasting so great just as you’re down to the last sips is because it’s no longer ice cold and the flavors have emerged.
I’m going to ramble around Northern Italy without leaving Long Island—glass by glass, at the beach, in the restaurants and on the back deck looking at the water. Wine resonates with imagery and emotions and pinot grigio is telling us loudly to enjoy the summer and la dolce vita while we can.
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