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posted: 8/15/2012 2:04 PM

Good wine: Many grapes cling to Pinot family vine

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As a wine merchant, I was always tickled when customers asked me for a "Pinot."

That's like walking into an Irish tavern and asking for Murphy. You may get something you don't expect.

In fact, Pinot is the oldest family of grapes, and the largest.

There's the head of the clan, Pinot Noir, with black (noir) skin and a reputation as an international superstar with a Hollywood Oscar to prove it.

There's Pinot Gris, Noir's grey-skinned cousin, called Pinot Grigio in Italy.

There's Pinot Blanc, the white-skinned Pinot, called Pinot Bianco in Italy and once confused for Pinot Chardonnay -- which isn't a Pinot at all.

There's Pinotage, South Africa's flagship grape -- a genetic cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (which is sometimes called Hermitage.)

Then there's Pinot Beurot, Pinot de 'Ermitage, Pinot Fin, Pinot Meunier and a whole list of grapes called "Pineau" simply to attract shine from the Pinot family's star.

Pinot Noir has plenty of exposure and many Pinots/ Pineaus are limited to the acquired tastes of their home markets, but the following wines can partner with a delicious meal, make a unique tasting and your own Pinot party or Bring and Braai (see below) -- the Afrikaans version of potluck:

Pinot Grigio: Pinot Gris's Italian cousin is light and dry with lemony acidity to pair with light dishes accented with lemon or lime, such as shrimp, guacamole and antipasti. US-grown Pinot Grigio generally loses the grape's refreshing acidity and this palate eschews them, as well as selections over $15. A widely available, great-value is Mezza Corona (under $10). Giacato is an interesting Slovenian example (about $11).

Pinot Blanc: While one of my all-time favorite wines is an Alsace Pinot Blanc (see Ross' Choice), I otherwise turn to Oregon to enjoy this variety. Soft in acidity with round peach-pear-melon flavors, Pinot Blanc is a refreshing, unoaked alternative to Chardonnay that partners with creamy dishes such as crab salad, cow-milk cheese and flammekueche (Alsace's cheese and bacon tart.) Recommended producers include Elk Cove, WillaKenzie and A to Z.

Pinot Gris: Italian Pinot Grigio is delish with steamed shrimp and cocktail franks, but for grilled lobster tail or bratwurst, serve Alsace Pinot Gris. Both translations offer vibrant acidity but Gris adds weight -- both from alcohol and concentrated fruit and mineral flavors. The Furst ($14.99) has an unctuous palate, laced with honey and stone fruit for blue cheese, sweet-and-spicy entrees.

Trimbach "Reserve" ($23.99) combines smoke, white fruits and white pepper in a frame that expands from lean and racy to mouth-filling and dynamic 30 minutes after opening.

Pinotage: Like a child that mirrors both parents in a new personality, Pinotage combines the supple, red fruits of Pinot Noir with Cinsault's muscle and funk. Serve the fruit bomb Ken Forrester "Petite" ($12) cool to the palate with casual, finger-lickin' fare such as burgers and barbecued wings. The sturdy Warwick Estate "Old Bush" ($18) calls for braai -- the Afrikaans term for grilled meats.

• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at

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