Bad pinot grigio is so prevalent that you’d be forgiven for thinking there were no such thing as good pinot grigio. There is, of course, though for a reason not as central to the distinction between good and bad wines made from most other grapes. Pinot grigio lives and dies by the way it’s cultivated.

Don’t all grapes? To some extent, yes. But other varietals with controversial reputations, such as chardonnay and merlot, earn their stature mostly through how they’re treated once they’ve been harvested. Whether you enjoy or despise oaky chardonnay, for instance, your preference is based primarily on the type of primary fermentation process, and related practices such as malolactic fermentation and lees stirring. All of that is decided by enologists.

The determining factors in whether pinot grigio makes a good wine stem not from the cellar, not from decisions about how to “make” the wine, but from the fields where the grapes themselves grow. The most important people in a pinot grigio wine’s life are not the enologists; they’re the viticulturalists, the growers.

This is because pinot grigio, left to its own devices, goes absolutely nuts in the vineyard. It is fertile in the extreme, yielding tremendous numbers of grapes per vine, and thus many hectoliters of juice per hectare of land. Pinot grigio’s fecundity is not the only reason you see so much of its wine, but it’s a big reason. It’s relatively easy to grow, produces loads of juice relative to the space and effort afforded it, and the wine can be bottled and shipped soon after fermentation. Economics rule. Think of it as the corn of the wine world.

A grape is the nexus of sun, water and soil, but is most heavily influenced by soil. Vines transmit the components of the soil and subsoil – micronutrients, flavor compounds, complex molecular combinations – to their grapes.

Some soil types have more of that good stuff than others, but any given volume unit of soil contains a certain amount. The more grapes on the vine, the more that amount – all those influences on a final wine’s character – are dispersed. Each grape wants as much as it can get. Economics rule the internal society of a grapevine just as assertively as they do the global beverage marketplace.

Higher dispersion leads to under-concentrated wines, the flavors distant and watered down, the structure crumbling, the textures wishy-washy. That’s bad pinot grigio.

The grape itself has, inherently, lots of interesting fruit flavors – way more than chardonnay or pinot blanc – but in a wine from an overproducing vineyard those flavors will present in a vacuum of moderating factors (acidity, bitterness, herbal and earthy notes). The result is a distinct profile of the oversweet syrup at the bottom of canned fruit salad, diluted to a pitiful weakness. Bad pinot grigio is the most childish wine I know.

Good pinot grigio requires a courageous hand in the vineyard: prune, prune, prune. The more you cut away some unripened grapes in a process known as “green harvest,” the more able are the survivors to sip from their vines’ nectar undistracted.

Pinot grigio is also best suited to cool climates, at high altitudes. So, the most useful information on the label of a pinot grigio bottle would indicate vineyard altitude, average day and night temperatures, and yields (hectoliters per hectare is the unit in Europe, whereas in the United States and other countries tons per acre are specified; some winemakers indicate weight per vine).

The greatest pinot grigio is from cool northeastern Italy, in Friuli and Alto Adige. The clonal parent, pinot gris, does best in Alsace, France, and sorta-kinda Oregon, though I’ve never drunk an Oregon pinot gris that pulls together the loveliness, aromatic freshness and oily, full body of its European counterparts. A good general rule: Don’t buy a pinot grigio from the south of anywhere.

In Italy as opposed to Alsace, winemakers tend to harvest on the early side, retaining more acidity and yielding a lighter body, with lower alcohol – as well as a little less textural complexity and less prominent spice.

Good Italian pinot grigio also has extraordinarily pretty mountain wildflower aromas, subtly reminiscent of Burgundy (appropriate, given that pinot gris is a genetic mutation of Burgundy’s great red varietal, pinot noir). I love a viscous pinot gris in cold months with warm foods; as the weather gets milder, I move to pinot grigio.

(An almost entirely separate subject is the wines made of pinot grigio that ferment for a long time in contact with the skins, yielding what in northeastern Italy is called “ramato” and in neighboring Slovenia as well as increasingly throughout the wine world “orange wine.” Pinot grigio’s skins vary in color depending on region, but in general are deeply hued, with a hint of the namesake gray: grayish golden yellow, grayish copper, grayish salmon pink. Wines made with long skin contact take on those colors, and taste deeply savory and spiced.)

My favorite pinot grigio wines are identifiably Italian, salty-fruity with pretty perfume, but they borrow some of the richness and persistence of Alsatian pinot gris. Spice rather than citrus provides the liveliness, and a garlicky bite tightens up the whole package. Garlic’s tang and bitter aspect provide the perfect bridge to pinot grigio, so that these wines really sing at a meal, rather than being sipped in isolation before your polo team’s match begins.

As spring garlic scapes come into market, I celebrate with good pinot grigio and a scape omelet oozing a melted mountain cheese. Garlicky pesto spread over polenta or fish poached in olive oil and sliced garlic are other winners.

Good pinot grigio is inexpensive, though of course costs a few bucks more than the bad/cheap (all that handwork with the garden shears takes time). Note that current vintage on these wines is a year older than many of the more generic ones, a hint that the grapes were respected enough to hold up to more time in bottle.

The Fantinel 2014 ($13) stands out for clarity, intrigue and balance at a very approachable price. The product of stone and gravel soil in Friuli, with a moderate yield of 2 kilograms per vine, it is, as they say, correct. It’s very vibrant on the tongue, with bright acidity and a salty minerality like rain on a sidewalk, bracing and upright while retaining the middleweight mouthfeel that is pinot grigio’s birthright. The aromas are pure delight, a mix of wildflowers, lemons, almonds, grapes, apple.

There are several standard-bearers at the next price level. The Tramin Pinot Grigio 2014 ($18) is clean and delineated, gorgeously aromatic, soft and charming since the grapes are primarily from vineyards on denser clay, rather than stony soils. Wines from Hofstätter and Elena Walch are similarly composed and interesting.

Two somewhat unconventional pinot grigios are worth mentioning here, to see what happens when you venture slightly south of the northernmost zones. Maso Poli’s Pinot Grigio 2014 ($18) is from Trentino, just south of Alto Adige. While this isn’t “south,” it bears the imprint of a milder climate. The grapes are harvested by hand after diligent pruning. The wine is on the riper side, approaching pinot gris in weight – a result mostly of 30 percent of the wine being fermented in used French oak barrels, then resting on the lees for seven months. These techniques impart richness to the fruit, with suggestions of ripe pineapple and pear, cut by a whiff of limoncello.

Then there’s the Redentore Pinot Grigio 2014 ($16), from grapes grown organically on clay-based soils in the Veneto, just a bit southwest of Trentino, and vinified with native yeasts. It’s the most distinctive non-orange pinot grigio I’ve tasted in a long time. It has a prominent first taste of cucumber water like they give you in a spa, then exotic flavors of papaya, honeydew, pink grapefruit, tarragon. The body is full and serene, like a summer lake at midnight, enveloping. Once spring’s fresh green snap melts into steamy summer, this is the place to take a dip.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be contacted at:

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