Pinots (pronounced PEE -no) are beautiful things — big ones, small ones and nice, smooth round ones. They are long on flavor — fruity, dusty and even smoky — and I haven’t met many I didn’t like. The families’ wide variety of flavors, from Blanc to Noir (pronounced n-WAR) to Gris (all bearing the first name of Pinot), provide enough versatility for the pickiest of palates.
The three grapes are distantly related, cloned many years ago to please the winemakers of old. Pinot Blanc is the white clone of its red twin sibling, Pinot Noir hailing originally from the Burgundy region of France. Since then, the French and Germans (and most recently the Americans) have perfected this perky wine. Full of personality, luscious fruit characteristic and easy drinking acidity, Pinot Blanc has the potential for being the next white wine for the masses. Drink it alone or with food like creamy seafood dishes or chicken.
Pinot Gris, also called Pinot Grigio in Italy and Tokay in Germany, embodies the suppleness of the Pinot family. The word “Gris” translates to “gray” and comes from the unusually dark-colored skins of this white grape.
Domestically, Oregon corners the market on perfectly tart, fantastically fragrant Pinot Gris, loaded with peaches, apples and honey. Just smell one of these scented babies and you’ll want to bottle it as perfume. And once it’s in the mouth, it doesn’t disappoint; the aroma turns into fruit dripping with cream on the tongue. Italian Pinot Grigios, mostly consumed at mealtime in the Old World, tend to be higher in acidity and steely, food-friendly characteristics.
But Gris can’t beat the world’s love of Pinot Noir, the redhead of the family. Traditionally, there have been two types of red wine fans in the world: Cabernet Sauvignon lovers and Pinot Noir lovers. The lighter, softer of the two is Pinot, better suited for a wider variety of foods, and also easy to drink alone. Winemakers talk about how finicky Pinot can be; the soil, weather and care during the grapes’ year of growth make a huge difference in the end product.
Pinot can yield many different styles of wine, from grapey and light to rough and funky. On the earthy side, Pinots from France’s Burgundy more often have an astringent backbone, which allows them to age for decades. New-world producers, like California and Australia, tend to make Pinot that’s more approachable now, rather than in five or 10 years. Try French Pinot Noirs with heartier dishes, such as those laden with mushrooms or smoked meat. Fresher, fruitier Pinots go well with fish like salmon or tuna and grilled chicken.
Elk Cove 2001 Pinot Gris Like eating ripe, aromatic peaches followed by an afternoon of decadent leisure. This Oregon producer also makes awesome Pinot Noir. $16. 3 1/2 stars.
Willakenzie 2001 Pinot Blanc Smells like crisp, clean sheets on a summer day. In the mouth, it features honeydew melon sprinkled with lemon, not overwhelming the senses, but dazzling them. Simply wonderful. $18. 4 stars.
La Crema 2001 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Because Pinot Noir grapes are difficult to grow, the wine tends to be on the expensive side — but not always. For relatively little dough, this winery has managed to produce a wine with an intense, smoky, dried cherry with a splash of mocha. Quite yummy. $19. 3 1/2 stars.
Rancho Zabaco 2002 Reserve Pinot Gris Bursting at the seams with pear, green grass and a touch of grapefruit. Reminds me of a full-bodied, softer New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. $20. 3 stars.