wine: White is Back 

Pinot grigio has taken over as the second most popular wine sold in Richmond.

Pinot grigio is a grape (also called pinot gris) that has attained its status and popularity due to its sheer drinkability. Maybe oak flavor burnout is catching up with chardonnay drinkers after all. The former second place wine, the sauvignon blanc is still tasty but a bit confusing. Its flavors range from garden veggies to a lot of oak, with not a mention of either on the label. Maybe the reason for our newfound interest in pinot grigio is its flavor consistency.

The Barboursville Pinot Grigio, Virginia, 2001 at $15 is a fine place to start. The grapes are expertly grown and the wine making skills are always in evidence. The aroma from the glass is worth the price of admission. The flavors are all pears and apples. After a glass of this and a little linguini with white clam sauce, you won't be returning to chardonnay for a while.

Even though the Barboursville is a better wine, the wine that's propelling the local change in popularity is the Cavit Pinot Grigio, Friuli, 1.5 L, $9.99. This Italian co-op of more than 300 members has actually become the model of consistency and marketing. They have been plugging away for years on the local grocery-store shelves awaiting their big break. It has happened. For a dollar a glass it is way ahead of the California Chablis that is still hanging around, and it's better than chardonnay in its price range.

The fascinating thing about wines becoming vastly more popular is that next step — the quest for grapes. New vineyard sites have to be sought to keep up with demand. Sometimes this is not so easy. "Barboursville is planting more pinot grigio and uprooting grapes that have proven to be less popular," says Luca Pascina, Barboursville's winemaker.

In Northern Italy where pinot grigio has been grown for ages, the process is more like fine tuning, and it's paying off. The small region of Collio, in the sea of vines that is Northern Italy, is producing wines of great distinction. These are the ones to look for on your local wine lists.

Elena Walch quit a career as an architect to start a winery. If you're going to quit a job as an architect and start a winery you have to have a screw loose or know what you're doing, and luckily, she knows what she's doing. Her Elena Walch Pinot Grigio, Alto Adige, 2001, $14 sets the standard for this region of Italy. She has 62 acres of vines with a limited number of varieties. Her wines have considerably more flavor and definition than the usual pinot grigio.

To experience why the wines from this area are so highly touted, you need only try a few producers' work. Just pull the cork of the Francisco Toros Pinot Grigio, Collio, 2000, $15 and you are in for a surprise. The cork announces the quality before you even try the stuff. The attention to detail is impressive: This is the cork for an $80 bottle of wine. The wine itself is crisp, tightly woven with a flavor that is more elegant than bold. This, too, is a terrific definition of pinot grigio. Collio is the new region and a buzz word for high-quality pinot grigio.

There may or may not be enough grapes to satisfy our newfound fascination with these wines. The transformation locally would be simple: just rip out all of the sauvignon blanc and pinot noir grapes. These two varieties the local winemakers talk a lot about, but they have never excited anyone.

The one thing that we know is they are planting more grapes in Italy. The two marketing powerhouses we see on local shelves are the Italian wines from Gallo and Mondavi. Their pinot grigios are Ecco Domani and Danzante, both wines of quality and value.

Even though Italy seems to be the major player in pinot grigio right now. It is a bit too soon for the rush from California to come our way en masse, but from their past track record, we know they will. Monterey looks to be the growing region of choice. One thing is certain, if you have an interest in trying a pinot grigio in Richmond you won't run out of choices. S

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