Up to a point, Washington and Oregon don't compete head-on in the quality wine market. Oregon grows nearly 15 times more pinot noir grapes than

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Up to a point, Washington and Oregon don't compete head-on in the quality wine market. Oregon grows nearly 15 times more pinot noir grapes than cabernet sauvignon; in Washington, the proportions are reversed—nearly 20 times as much acreage is planted in cabernet as in pinot. Until recently the white side of the wine list has been similarly split. Washington grows a lot of Riesling, four times as much as Oregon, while pinot gris, a mere blip on the Washington scope, is Oregon's second leading white varietal. Washington grape growers were content to leave it that way—until the reaction against heavy, perfumey, oaky chardonnay began, and American wine drinkers began discovering pinot gris. Pinot gris, a mutated variety of pinot noir, has been turned into first-rate wine for decades in places like France's Rhine-side Alsace and Italy's mountainous Alto Adige region north of Lake Garda. But fashionability's only come recently, as more and more wine drinkers discover that the "great" varietals like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon are not only ever pricier but can be damned finicky about the foods they're matched with. No such problem with pinot gris; pinot gris goes with just about everything. And I mean everything: If you're looking for wine to go with a plate of bacon and eggs—or raw carrots, celery, and radishes, for that matter—pinot gris will do just fine. In a way, pinot gris' big advantage is negative; it usually has little or no bouquet and very little distinct flavor, so it doesn't fight with tastes and aromas of food. But that's not to say it has no character. Pinot gris may not taste like much, but it has a tang, providing a lingering, enlivening refreshment for the palate that's quite distinctive. The water turned to wine at that wedding in Cana could well have tasted just like this. Oregon winemakers seem to like their pinot gris on the sweeter, daintier side, kind of like gewrztraminer without the wrz. Washington doesn't produce enough pinot gris yet to have a style pinned down. But a 2000 vintage by Columbia Winery's David Lake suggests that Washington is capable of turning out wines with more backbone and tang without losing the food-friendly character that's made the variety so popular. Another major factor in pinot gris' popularity: It's comparatively cheap. A fine Alsatian bottling runs around $17, a first-rate Italian just $13.50. Lake's homegrown version is comparable to either and costs just under $10. Next time you're looking for a bottle to go with dinner and don't want to spend half an hour studying up on its affinities, try some P.G. Pinot gris sampled (Trimbach 2001 "Aurore" pino gris, Alsace, $17.50; Alois Lageder 2001 pinot grigio, Alto Adige, Italy, $13.50; Elvenglade 2001 pinto gris, Yamhill County, Oregon, $15) were suggested by Dan McCarthy, McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants. Get This: Dunham's 2000 syrah: It's $45 a bottle and fewer than 1,000 cases were made, but this is what syrah is supposed to taste like—full, ripe, lush, fragrant, but structured for the long haul—and a great presage for the grape's future in Washington. Pinot gris comparison-sampled for this column were suggested by Dan McCarthy, McCarthy & Schiering Wine Merchants. Trimbach 2001 "Aurore" pino gris (Alsace) $17.50

Alois Lageder 2001 pinot grigio Alto Adige (Italy) $13.50

Elvenglade 2001 pinto gris Yamhill County (Oregon) $15 rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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