Much pinot grigio has a poor reputation — and deservedly so. Some of it is badly made Italian wine that gets shipped to the United States and sold to people who think it’s supposed to taste like turpentine. Some of it is badly made U.S. wine, sold by companies piggybacking on the Italian wave.

How has this happened, with consumers paying as much as $25 for bottles of wine that really aren’t very good? Much of it comes from people who want white wine that isn’t chardonnay, and don’t understand sauvignon blanc. Much of it comes from restaurants, which sell it aggressively by the glass to people who want something more sophisticated than white zinfandel. In fact, it’s the second most popular white wine sold in the United States according to Nielsen, and in 2006 it was even more popular than white zinfandel.

So what is quality pinot grigio supposed to taste like? The Italian version should be clean and minerally, with just a hint of lemon- or lime-like fruit. It should not taste like it can be used to clean paintbrushes. California pinot grigio is closer to sauvignon blanc, but without the latter’s big-time citrus flavor and with more minerality. It also has softer fruit flavors. Neither style should be high in alcohol, for they are supposed to be easy-drinking, porch-sipping wines.

And none of this applies to pinot gris, which is the same grape — but which is made in a completely different style in Oregon and in the Alsace region of .

What does pinot grigio pair with? Most white wine foods, but especially shellfish, grilled shrimp, and pastas with light sauces. Serve it chilled. These three wines give a good overview of the quality available:

• Estancia Pinot Grigio 2006 ($11). I had not tasted this California wine in a while, and was surprised at how much it had improved. It’s easily the match of wines costing $15 or $18. And, since it’s only 12 percent alcohol, it has almost honey sweetness (the lower the alcohol in a table wine, the less dry it is).

• Mezzacorona Pinot Grigio Riserva ($17). Lucio Matricardi, the winemaker for Mezzacorona, says he hates the turpentine-style Italian pinot grigio that most Americans associate with the wine. So he made one with fresh, clean floral aromas and a very nifty lemon, mineral finish.

• Terlato Pinot Grigio 2006 ($22). I tasted five of the most famous high end Napa wines at a big deal lunch, and this was served as an aperitif. Guess which wine I liked the most? It’s very California, with some citrus flavors but also with an orange floral aroma.

POTATO-CRUSTED CATFISH

There is a classic French dish that involves a mandoline and expensive cuts of fish. This isn’t it. It’s quick and easy (save for flipping the fish when you cook it, which requires a bit of care). Serve this with any style of quality pinot grigio.

Serves four (takes about 40 minutes); adapted from Jacques Pepin

2 catfish fillets, about 8 ounces each, cut in half
2 baking potatoes, peeled, grated and drained
1/2 cup chopped red onion
Salt and pepper to taste

 1. Combine the potatoes, onions and salt and pepper and mix well.
2. Heat a non-stick skillet and add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When it’s hot, place four small, evenly spaced mounds of potato mixture in the skillet. Leave enough potato for four more mounds. Press a portion of the fish onto each mound, and cover the fish with the remaining potato.
3. Cook the potatoes until browned, about five minutes. Then turn the mounds carefully and cook another five minutes, until the potatoes are browned again. The fish, believe it or not, will be cooked.

ASK THE WINE GUY …
How many grapes exist for wine making?
More than you can imagine, numbering in the thousands. The Italians alone make wine out of a couple of hundred, most of which no one but the Italians have ever heard of. Wine making grapes range from grape-like fruit called muscadines and scuppernongs to hybrid grapes to native American grapes like concord and catawba to European-style grapes like cabernet, chardonnay and the like. The latter are from the genus and species vitis vinifera (you’ll often hear them called vinifera) and make the best wine.

 

 


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