Pinot Grigio is like a good friend that is always reliable and doesn’t demand constant attention and recognition. When you are together to rekindle the friendship, you are delighted to find the good vibes are still there. Pinot Grigio, known as Pinot Gris in France and to some local winemakers (and from here on simply PG) continues to gain popularity throughout the United States, especially when food pairings are involved.

Pinot Grigio is originally an Italian variety, primarily produced in the Friuli and Alto Adige regions north of Venice and in other parts of northeast Italy. Although we think of Pinot Grigio as a white wine, the skins of this grape are actually grayish (hence the name Grigio for gray) in color early on. Later they take on copper or salmon hues and despite the fact that the juice is pressed off the skins immediately, a small amount of “pinkish” color manages to end up in the wine.

PG is one of the most refreshing white wines with plenty of fruit character. In the right terroir and winemaker hands, enough acid and structure develops to yield a balanced wine for cellaring and savoring. Winemaking of PG is carefully done because the skins are bitter and need gentle, whole-cluster pressing to avoid extracting their bitter compounds. Most winemakers then ferment the juice in stainless steel to retain the fresh fruit character, while others use some barrel aging, in the French style, to add a creamy texture.

Bryan Babcock, of Babcock Vineyards, uses both terms Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio, reserving the former for his “more serious, heavyweight cuvee and Grigio for the more flippant, fruity, crisp, beat the heat style.” Babcock grows all of his PG in the Santa Rita Hills, where “the cool climate, which we have not seen much of this year, helps to lock in the fruit. It is a bit on the fragile side. If you grow it in a hot place, it burns out the flavor. There is a lot of innocuous PG out there. But find a good one and it is bliss. Overall, it’s very food-friendly. Beat the heat and have some with a cool, crisp salad, or maybe chilled pasta. Or do the Judy Willis thing; forget the food, get an ice bucket.”

Winemaker Alan Phillips favors the 100% steel tank fermentation to create a crisp, fruit-driven PG with aromas of apples, grapefruit and melon. Within Foley’s Estate Vineyard, at the 460-acre Rancho Santa Rosa, Phillips has a small, 1.14-acre block of Pinot Gris. Block 15 is devoted to clone 53 of Pinot Gris, well suited for the surface soil composition of Tierra loam and a low-yielding hillside terroir. Its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean creates an ideal vineyard setting for the cultivation of Pinot Gris.

Why does Alan have PG in a location that’s most suited for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir? “I love having another white wine option and PG from this vineyard is crisp, light, fruit-driven,” he says, “a lively wine to refresh you in the afternoon or to enhance your picnic or turn a few simple dishes into a significant dinner.”

The Palmina Pinot Grigio made by Steve Clifton at his Alisos Vineyard has the crisp acidity that makes it a friend to any food, but Clifton suggests going Italian with this varietal. Similar in its crisp bite was the Hogue Pinot Grigio 2005, from the Columbia Valley in Washington. Winemaker David Forsythe hit the mark with this vintage’s upfront aromas of pear and white peach and hints of almonds, vanilla and cherries rich and soft on the palate. At a price of only $9 and with a screw-top, you can grab two bottles for a gourmet picnic.

From Santa Barbara to Washington wines like Pinot Grigio reflect the soils, low rainfall and cooler temperatures with long growing seasons. Add to that vineyard care with vine and berry control and you get the acids and flavors of slow ripening without excessive sugar and resulting high alcohols to give you a wine for all seasons.

Welcome Back Gabe!

Join the winemakers and vintners of Ampelos Cellars and Consilience Winery at Elements Restaurant as they pair their wines with the cuisine of Elements executive chef and owner Paul Becking to welcome local media personality and wine aficionado, Gabe Saglie, back to Santa Barbara with a winemaker dinner on November 15. Reservations at 884-9218.

Sip Tip

This week’s great value wine comes from Lockwood Vineyard. The 2004 Lockwood Syrah ($12) was all Monterey-estate-grown. The minimally irrigated soil kept the vigor in the grapes and not the vines, yielding a Syrah with bright, intense fruit (pomegranate), red and black licorice and smooth tannins.