What's the difference between Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio? Nothing, yet everything.
It's the same grape in different languages: "gris" is French and "grigio" is Italian. Both mean "gray." But there's a huge difference in bottles labeled Pinot Gris versus Pinot Grigio.
As a general rule, wineries calling it Pinot Gris follow the traditions of France's Alsace region, where the grape is turned into floral, minerally wines. And wineries calling it Pinot Grigio follow the Italian tradition of making lemon-flavored water.
OK, that's unkind, especially because Pinot Grigio is so popular. This white genetic cousin of Pinot Noir is now America's fifth favorite wine, according to the Nielsen Co., and sales grew by a whopping 18.9 percent by volume over the past year. At that rate, it could move into fourth place within two years, passing White Zinfandel.
But the lemon-water analogy rang true for us after tasting 42 wines labeled Pinot Gris and 32 labeled Pinot Grigio from Oregon, California and Washington. All of the wines rated 2 1/2 stars and above were called Pinot Gris save one huge exception, made by an Italian-named winery, which proved there's no reason a wine called Pinot Grigio can't be complex and delicious. Most wineries simply choose not to make it that way to please the mass market. And why not? There are plenty of occasions when a simple palate-cleanser is called for, and that's the time to open a bottle labeled Pinot Grigio.
Because it's trendy, Pinot Grigio is grown everywhere, but wines from cool climates are far better. Oregon is the best place overall -- though we tasted just 19, half our recommendations come from there. That said, we also learned that the best wines from cool parts of California can be just as good as the best from the Beaver State. It largely depends on the name.