The Grape Escape: Pinot gris, pinot grigio, whatever

It doesn’t matter whether the label reads “pinot gris,” as the French call it, or the Italian-style “pinot grigio.” It’s the same grape, and either way, you’re much more likely to call for this popular white wine today than you were a decade ago.

Pinot gris vineyards have tripled in California over the past 10 years, and it’s catching up fast with sauvignon blanc for second place, behind chardonnay, in the white-wine sweepstakes.

Unfortunately, whenever a consumer product goes big, a lot of profit-taking happens. In short, you can find very good pinot gris (or grigio), but demand has brought us a lot of neutral, insipid white wine.

Cutting to the chase, let’s take a moment this week to review a good, old-fashioned California pinot gris — actually, a blend of two-thirds pinot gris with one-third pinot blanc — that shows us this grape the way it was meant to be.

Au Bon Climat, a Santa Barbara, Calif., winery with a very French name, is one of my favorites. Owner Jim Clendenen, one of the last of the old hippies, makes the kind of wines I like, balancing elegance and structure with serious intensity of flavor. I got it at Old Town Wine & Spirits (1529 Bardstown Road, 451-8591,

Au Bon Climat 2009 Santa Barbara County Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc ($17.99)
Clear light gold in color, this aromatic and food-friendly wine offers white-fruit aromas of peach and melon, with a hint of musk and elusive whiffs of almond. Mouth-watering acidity gets your palate’s attention and provides a clean finish, but a pleasant, rich texture keeps things comfortable.