Wine experts rarely agree on much of anything, but I don't know anyone who disputes the importance of aroma in evaluating and appreciating...

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Wine experts rarely agree on much of anything, but I don’t know anyone who disputes the importance of aroma in evaluating and appreciating fine wine.

Training your sniffer is the most difficult and demanding task for any wine enthusiast. But it also is the most rewarding. Flavor begins and ends here.

If you don’t agree, try this simple test: Pour a generous sample of your favorite wine into your favorite wine glass. Pour an equal share into a small tumbler or water glass. Now take a sip from each. Which tastes better?

The wine in the glass that shows the nose will seem to have more flavor. Still not convinced? Try tasting from the good glass while pinching your nostrils tight. Keep them pinched all the way through sipping, swoozling and swallowing the wine. Kind of dumbs it way down, doesn’t it?

The point of all this is that a wine with subtle fragrances also will be a wine with more complex flavors. And as tasters develop their palates, they tend to gravitate toward these more aromatic wines. The buzz in the wine industry is that aromatic white wines are the next big trend.

Which makes sense because, as a whole, Americans are becoming more sophisticated in their wine tasting. Many, if not most, in my generation never saw a bottle of wine on their parents’ table; for younger people, growing up with wine at dinner is commonplace. So palates are sharpened at an earlier age.

Despite the continued attention to over-the-top, oaky, alcoholic, fruit bomb wines by some of the leading wine publications, the robust sales of such wines as riesling and pinot grigio indicate that consumers are finding them more and more appealing. Even chardonnay is no longer automatically marinated in new oak; many wineries are discovering that unoaked chardonnays have more interesting and prettier aromas. Sauvignon blancs are not for everyone, but for those who love their uniquely grassy, herbaceous scents, they too are best kept out of new barrels.

Wine pick of the week


Covey Run 2004 Pinot Grigio ($7): This blows away everything in its price range. Plump flavors of pear, peach, citrus and green apple show persistence, grip and a mouth-cleaning tartness.

Other recommended pinot grigios


Marco Felluga 2004 Pinot Grigio ($15): From Collio, this crisp effort mixes green apple and fresh melon, with hints of herbal spice.

Torre di Luna 2004 Pinot Grigio ($11): Better than average Veneto wine. Green apple, pineapple and tart green berry flavors anchor this tart and juicy effort.

Willamette Valley Vineyards 2004 Pinot Gris ($13): A soft, spicy, Oregon PG that tastes like fresh-cut pears. Pinot blanc, auxerrois and gewurztraminer also are in the blend.

Eyrie 2003 Pinot Gris ($16): Eyrie’s David Lett planted the first pinot gris in the country, and after 34 vintages still makes one of the most distinctive. Scents of dried grass, herbs and honeysuckle lead into a crisp, elegant, restrained wine with a European mouthfeel.

Daedalus 2004 Pinot Gris ($16): Another beauty from Oregon, this detailed (almost pointillist) effort is like a tapestry woven of citrus, grapefruit, pears and spice, then soaked in wet stones. Subtle and penetrating.

Pepi 2004 Pinot Grigio ($10): A spritzy, crisp California wine; the screwcap makes it easier for outdoor enjoyment. Its back label — “Easy to open, easy to enjoy” — says it all.

Talus 2004 Pinot Grigio ($6): From Lodi, this grassy, pungent wine has pleasant, fruity lemon/lime flavors and plenty of zesty acid.

Unless noted, all Wine Adviser recommendations are currently available, though vintages might sometimes differ. All wine shops and most groceries have a wine specialist on staff. If they do not have the wine in stock, they can order it for you from the local distributor.

Pinot grigio (or gris — same thing) can be made with or without new oak, but its subtle aromas are best expressed when the wine is fermented in stainless steel. The scents of fresh-cut pears, green apples and citrus blossom are absolutely delicious. They don’t need to be roasted, toasted or drowned in vanilla.

The gris/grigio dual identity is unfortunate (which one is Superman, and which is Clark Kent?) but fairly easy to sort through. In Italy, it’s always pinot grigio, and almost all the wines there are made in a fresh, unoaked style. In France, it’s always pinot gris, and there is more use of barrels, albeit “neutral” ones. In Oregon, they elected to use pinot gris many years ago, though they might now be regretting it, because wineries in California and here in Washington seem to be gravitating to the pinot grigio side, largely as a marketing decision.

The best Italian pinot grigios come from the northeast — the regions collectively known as the Tre Venezie. Within this broad area, the most focused, distinctive and expensive versions come from Friuli (especially the Collio region) and Trentino-Alto Adige. Top producers, who make superb grigios year after year, include Jermann, Marco Felluga, Livio Felluga, Schiopetto, Venica & Venica, Alois Lageder and Elena Walch.

Lesser (often less expensive) grigios are made in the Veneto. Popular brands such as Santa Margherita and Bella Sera come from here, but far too many of the most widely available Veneto grigios are simple, watery wines of little substance or character.

California, as always, is a mixed bag of styles and prices. The hardest thing to find domestically is well-made, flavorful, dry pinot grigio priced under $10. Here is where Washington is stepping up to the plate. While plantings are limited — 330 acres as of the most recent (2002) survey — demand is high. In 2003, pinot gris was the most expensive white-wine grape grown in Washington, according to the Washington Agricultural Statistics Service. When tasted against versions from California, Washington quality is competitive for the price. I’ve already sung the praises of the outstanding Willow Crest 2004 Pinot Gris ($9). But the best deal of all is the new vintage from Covey Run, specially priced at $7.

Covey Run, as profiled in these pages two years ago, is making superb wines at value prices. In a recent survey of leading supermarket brands done by Information Resources Inc., Covey Run ranked No. 18 on the list of the nation’s top-25 most influential table-wine brands.

A taste through the winery’s latest releases shows why this relatively small (300,000-case) brand can compete so successfully with the big boys. Covey’s wines deliver full-bodied flavor at everyday prices. Not just the pinot grigio but also the 2004 dry riesling, 2004 chenin blanc and 2003 syrah — all priced between $6 and $8 — are highly recommended.

NOTE: The Washington State Liquor Control Board’s new liter tax on hard liquor goes into effect Friday. According to the WSLCB Web site, it should increase by about $1 the price of an average bottle of liquor purchased by a retail customer in a state or contract liquor store. Restaurants that sell liquor by the drink are exempted from the tax, which should not affect their drink prices.

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.