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Perfect wines for spring

May 25, 2014
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader


Times Leader Staff Writer

Everyone has been sweeping porches, power washing decks and pulling out the chaise lounges. Spring has returned; summer is coming. It's time to store those hearty Zinfandels for stew season and chill some refreshing sippers for lighter fare.

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Though the grapes are similar in characteristics, there are differences in flavors and colors created by climate, winemaker’s style and minerals in the earth.

Two wines that fit the bill are Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio) and Sauvignon Blanc (or Fume Blanc.) Both are light to medium body whites that are spring food-friendly and good complements for fish, salads and some lighter cheeses. Think picnic or relaxing after mowing the lawn.

Pinot Gris has been around since the Middle Ages and came from the Burgundy region of France. The original plants were somewhat temperamental, and, until heartier clones were developed in the early 1900s, were regularly subject to weather changes and disease. Now it is grown throughout the world, but still prefers the cooler side of temperate climates. Countries that produce the Pinot Gris grape or its clones include France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, Hungary, Ukraine, Chile, Argentina, Italy and New Zealand, among others. In the United States, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir have been the foundation of the Oregon wine industry. It is also grown in Washington, California, Michigan, New Jersey and higher elevations in Arizona.

Its name, Pinot Gris, is a description of the grapes on the vine. "Pinot" is a reference to "pine" or the way the grapes grow close together like a "pinecone." "Gris," or grey, refers to the color of the grapes. In actuality the grapes can range in color from a light blue-grey to pinkish brown. The Pinot Gris grape and Pinot Noir grape (which is used for mainly red wines) have very similar DNA, as discovered by researchers at the University of California-Davis, and their vines and leaves are nearly identical. They believe that a mutation in the Pinot Noir plant occurred centuries ago creating the white grape.

As with many wines, flavor nuances can be influenced by minerals in the soil, the amounts of rain and sun and the winemaker's style. The general characteristics of Pinot Gris are its light color, a crisp flavor with some acidity and more fruity than dry. They are not meant to be aged and are drunk young, though some of the Alsatian varieties are fuller-bodied and can be cellared. The Italian pinot grigios and many California pinots generally have a light and crisp style. Oregon pinots are usually medium-bodied with more fruit flavor like apple, pear and melon.

A grape indigenous to the other side of France has some similar characteristics to Pinot Gris. Sauvignon Blanc's origins have been traced to Bordeaux and the Loire Valley. Its name, literally "wild white," is thought to come from its natural growth in the region. Now it is one of only four white blending grapes sanctioned in Bordeaux. The first Sauvignon Blanc grapes were brought to the United States (California) in the 1880s and were cuttings from Sauternes, Chateau d'Yquem, an excellent pedigree. The grape is now grown in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Chile, Australia and Washington.

While its characteristics are, like Pinot Gris', slightly acidic, possibly tart and a bit crisp, grapes from different vineyard locations - even in one region - will have different flavor notes. For instance in California, where it is marketed as Fume Blanc, the wine is fruitier and "rounder" in the mouth with tastes of tropical fruit or melon. Some of the New Zealand varieties may have more of a crispness and vegetal flavors, or even hints of grassiness, while other New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs taste more of tropical fruit. The French Bordeaux style is generally crisp and off-dry with mineral and floral notes.

In general, Sauvignon Blanc is one of the few wines that can pair with asparagus and artichokes, especially the slightly acidic styles. Speaking of pairing, this writer recently held a wine tasting with two mainstream Sauvignon Blancs, Thorny Rose from New Zealand and Sterling from California, and Ruffino Pinot Grigio from Italy with recommended food pairings. All three wines were around $10 each. The group first tasted the wines separately and then tasted with a progression of foods.

The first wine was the Ruffino Lumina 2012 Pinot Grigio from an area of northeast Italy known for this grape. The wine was almost colorless and was lighter bodied. The tasters remarked that it had "a bit of a bite" and was "slightly tart." Tasters thought it had a "creaminess" in the mouth and a smooth finish, with no dry feel. As far as flavors, tasters picked out the smell of pear and hints of apple and vanilla. Overall, the wine was non-descript - not unlikeable, but not exciting.

Thorny Rose 2011 Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand was the second wine. This wine was a very light gold color with a slight greenish cast. Tasters agreed that grapefruit was the first and most significant note. It had more body than the Pinot Grigio, was a little "sweeter" and more acidic. One taster added that it had more flavor than the first wine.

The California 2012 Sauvignon Blanc from Sterling Vineyards was a Vintner's Collection from the Central Coast. The color was deeper, more of a straw gold. One taster described the wine "opening up like a bouquet" in her mouth. This wine had more "heat" to it than the Thorny Rose. The nose was floral, and tasters described tastes of vanilla, flowers, guava and a hint of grapefruit or citrus.

As mentioned, these grapes have similar characteristics, and fit similar food profiles accordingly. Their differences stem mainly from where they are grown, and those differences lead to one wine being more suited to a particular food than another.

Tasters found that the Pinot Gris was the best accompaniment for the turkey sandwich on flatbread with mozzarella, lettuce and avocado. One taster said that the wine's light flavors helped the food flavors to shine. The Pinot Gris was also a winner with the fontina cheese and melon because its low-key flavors created a balanced combination.

The New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was the preferred wine with the grilled chicken sandwich on Italian bread with provolone and lettuce, one taster calling it "flavorful." It won the goat cheese with honey taste, also, whereas this wine was "bitter" with melon.

The California Sauvignon Blanc was an acceptable wine for both the turkey sandwich and the fontina cheese, but the other wines were slightly better.

Keep in mind while tasting that every person's palate is different, so there are no hard right or wrong answers. There is usually a general consensus of opinion, however, because the wine characteristics either enhance or detract from the tasting experience. For instance, tasters found the salami sausage too heavy and overpowering for all of the wines.

Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc are known for their clean flavors, perfect for fresh spring foods.

Valenti can be reached at



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