The convergence of an exquisite May weekend and the arrival of two bottles of pinot grigio from wineries in central Pennsylvania were enough to spark a sporting interest in determining which brand of this light white wine would be the tastiest. And I emphasize TASTY -- I'm not a wine connoisseur by any means. I was first introduced to pinot grigio wines at a Greek restaurant after requesting a recommendation for a dry white wine. The most commonly served white wine in California is chardonnay, which has a heavy puckery quality to it (tannins derived from the oak barrels in which it is aged) that gives me heartburn, followed in a close second by sauvignon blanc, which is more tart and less tannic, but is still a powerful flavor that can make you long for a big glass of water.
The friendly and playful pinot grigio (pronounced PEE-noh GREE-gee-oh) is far less tannic, by and large, with a sparky, fruity taste (and little aftertaste) that complements pastas in cream sauces, and mild chicken dishes and fish, without overpowering the foods' own flavors.
Cut to the chase: I bought eight different pinot grigios, the two from Pennsylvania, and six from Italy. With some fruit, a few crackers, and a bag of Hartley's (the best potato chips in the world) to cleanse my palate (that is to say, get ready for the next wine to taste), I plunged into research.
Bella Sera has a pleasantly light flavor to it, nicely fruity, perhaps just a bit acidic. There's nothing complex about this wine, it just does the job politely and cheerfully. At $6.99 a bottle, it's an easy and pleasant table wine.
Fontana Candida has a milder way with the tongue, but far more depth to the flavor. The fruitiness is there, but not as obvious as some, and just a hint of citrus -- or what the mind perceives as citrus -- and the flavor is mellow and inviting. I would have a second glass of this at dinner as a matter of course. A nice price at $7.50.
Brookmere pinot Grigio, Mica Ridge Vineyards just doesn't have the body that the Italian wines do. This eastern wine is mildly fruity, but lacks the spark and savor of the Italian wines (most of them, anyway). Perhaps the shorter growing season and the greater precipitation in the vineyards lowers the sugar content and changes the fermentation a bit.
In the blue bottle (I'm travelling from right to left across the bistro table) is The Winery at Wilcox, the second Pennsylvania wine, with more body than the Brookmere, but lacking the deeper flavors again. Notably, the Wilcox wine has a distinctive vanilla undertone that makes this a wonderful wine to have just by itself for a treat. The vanilla isn't added, by the way, it's just there. This would be a good wine to have over crushed ice by the poolside, and I think I will, thank you. Pennsylvania price:$11.25.
Ecco Domani is the workhorse of the Valley restaurants when it comes to pinot grigio. Imported by the huge Gallo enclave along with its poor little sister Bella Sera, and boosted by a nice TV advertising campaign, the lable and name are easily recognized and offered in many enlightened eateries. This wine has a bold taste that can stand up to strongly flavored dishes and fried foods. I find it a little puckery compared to the others (with one exception) but am always glad to find it on a menu. By the bottle in stores, $9.99.
Cavit is a mellow gentleman with a robust yet not overpowering flavor. Not too acid, not foolishly fruity, but crisp and enjoyable, at $8.99 a bottle Cavit is the perfect companion for a juicy roast chicken or a plate of cheeses.
In the back row in the photo are two bottles. The one on the right is Santa Margarita, the only one of the pinot grigios to come from Italy's Alto Adige district. The other Italian wines tested in this erudite study are labelled Delle Venezie, a different climate area that influences the taste of the grapes. At $21.99 a bottle in the store, you may think that this is too expensive to just put on the table with dinner, but au contraire, mon ami. Santa Margarita rises above all the others like a heavenly chorus. The fruitiness is entrancing, the crispness reminiscent of starched handmade lace, the savor enough to make one long for it with dinner if it is not available. At a restaurant in Atlanta, Geogia, I was more than willing to pay the menu price of $40.00 a bottle, if only I had had the afternoon to spend revelling rather than catching a dirty damned plane. This one is THE BEST.
On the other hand, the ‘WAY other hand, the remaining bottle, Gabbiano, despite its cute lable with a knight on horseback, was about as awful a wine as you can buy. Acidic to the point of road resurfacing, and so harsh of flavor that it could balance a dish of lard (and you would be grateful for the next spoon of lard), at $9.69 a bottle, this is a bigger waste of time and money than a fur ping pong ball. This is a wine just made for swigging, swishing and spitting on ants, and probably kills more of them than Raid.
Though the Santa Margarita is my choice for special occasions, and though I would not submit the Gabbiano except as an equine urine sample, the top choice overall for value and pleasure is the Cavit, with Fontana a very close second.
This grand experiment was a success; the patient lives. The rest of the weekend I can't seem to remember, a reminder to us all of the value of taking notes: Is it already June?.
Pinot Grigio - The Reality Series originally appeared in the 06-10-02 issue of The Piker Press