It seems the worst thing that can happen to a wine is to become popular. Look at Pouilly-Fuissé, California Cabernet, Merlot (after 60 Minutes) and Pinot Noir (after Sideways). In every case, quality fell victim to over-production and consistency got lost in a tsunami of supply.
In the same way, Pinot Grigio has gotten a bad rap. Once unknown, it has become the best-selling imported white wine in America. Every farmer with an extra ten acres of land in the northern Italian province of Trento has become a vintner. If this sounds forbidding, take heart that the worst of it isn’t even exported—it stays in Italy and forms what is known as the Wine Lake.
The Pinot Grigio category in this country was established by Santa Margherita. Thirty years ago, it was an authentic, small-production wine from the Alto Adige. Anthony Terlato, head of Paterno Imports (now Terlato Wines International) introduced Santa Margherita to the U.S. and made it a household name through a combination of clever advertising and hard work. Today, Santa Margherita is a huge brand, and tastes like grapefruit-flavored water mildly spiked with alcohol.
Still, there’s no shortage of high-quality Pinot Grigio on the market. The best examples are light and crisp, with bright acidity and succulent flavors of citrus, melon and peach. Good values under $15 include Anime, Bollini, Kris, Lungarotti, Roberto Pighin , Plozner and San Angelo.
The best wines are still in the Alto Adige, very close to where Terlato discovered Santa Margherita in 1979. This Northern province was part of Austria-Hungary until it was annexed by Italy in 1919, and street signs are posted even now in both Italian and German. The Alto Adige has a mountainous topography and perfect climate (hot days, cool nights) for growing delicate white varieties such as Pinot Grigio.
Splendid examples are produced by two small, family owned estates: Elena Walch and Alois Lageder (both around $20). These wines display brilliant acidity and gobs of mouthwatering, pure, fresh fruit. From the Collio region, Marco Felluga ($20) makes an intense, serious and mineral-inflected style of Pinot Grigio. Even better is Jermann ($30), which displays a richness and complexity that allows it to pair well with seafood as well as chicken, veal and pork in substantial sauces.