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Pinot Envy 

Diverse and delicious -- Blanc, Noir & Gris

PPinots are beautiful things... big ones, small ones and nice, smooth round ones. They are long on flavor, coming fruity, dusty and even smoky, and I haven't met many I didn't like. With their wide variety of flavors, Blanc, Noir and Gris, all bearing the first name of Pinot [PEE no], provide a family versatile enough for the pickiest of palates. The three grapes are distantly related, cloned years back to please winemakers of old. Pinot Blanc is the white clone of its red twin sibling, Pinot Noir [NWAR], hailing originally from the Burgundy region of France. Since then, the French and Germans -- and most recently the Americans -- have perfected this perky wine. Full of personality, luscious fruit characteristics, and easy drinking acidity, Pinot Blanc has the potential for being the next white wine for the masses; a lifesaving quencher for the hot and sweaty. Drink it alone or with food like creamy seafood dishes or chicken.

Pinot Gris, also called Pinot Grigio in Italy and Tokay in Germany, embodies the supple momma of the Pinot family. The word "Gris" translates to Gray, garnering its name from the unusually dark colored skins for a white grape. Domestically, Oregon corners the market on perfectly tart, fantastically fragrant Pinot Gris. Loaded with peaches, apples and honey, just smell one of these scented babies and you'll want to bottle it as perfume. And once it's in the mouth, it doesn't disappoint -- the aroma turns into fruit dripping with cream on the tongue. Italian Pinot Grigios, mostly consumed at mealtime in the old world, tend to be higher in acidity and steely, food-friendly characteristics.

But Gris can't beat the world's love of Pinot Noir, the red guy in the family. Traditionally, there have been two types of red wine fans in the world: Cabernet Sauvignon lovers and Pinot Noir lovers. The lighter, softer of the two is Pinot, better suited for a wider variety of food, and easy to drink alone. Winemakers talk about how finicky it can be; the soil, weather and care during the grapes' year of growth make a huge difference in the end product. Pinot can yield many different styles of wine, from grapey and light to rough and funky. On the earthy side, Pinots from France's Burgundy region more often have an astringent backbone, which allows them to age for decades. New world producers, like California and Australia, tend to make Pinot that's more approachable now, rather than in five or ten years. Try French Pinot Noirs with heartier dishes, like those laden with mushrooms or smoked meat. Fresher, fruitier Pinots prefer oily fish like salmon or grilled chicken.

Recommended Wines

Elk Cove 2001 Pinot Gris Like eating ripe, aromatic peaches, followed by an afternoon of decadent leisure. This Oregon producer also makes awesome Pinot Noir. 1/2 $16

Willakenzie 2001 Pinot Blanc Smells like crisp, clean sheets on a summer day. In the mouth, it features honeydew melon sprinkled with lemon, not overwhelming the senses, but dazzling it. Simply wonderful. $18

La Crema 2001 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Because Pinot Noir grapes are difficult to grow, the wine tends to be on the expensive side. But not always. For relatively little dough, this winery has managed to produce a wine with an intense, smoky, dried cherry taste and even a splash of mocha. Quite yummy. 1/2 $19

Rancho Zabaco 2002 Reserve Pinot Gris Bursting at the seams with pear, green grass and a touch of grapefruit. Kind of reminds me of a full-bodied, softer New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. $20

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