Pinot gris is kind of weird. Though the sound of its name (“pee-noh gree”) suggests elegance and Old World charm, the wines are not immediately inviting. Most of the interesting ones start out like jagged mountains to climb, a bit steep and aggressive, the weather iffy, no surplus of handholds. Over time – an extra year in the bottle, a half-hour in the glass – the path smooths out just as your muscles strengthen. You might have to work for it, but the view from the top will be grand.

I don’t mean to overstate the challenges, nor to suggest that easygoing, charismatic examples don’t exist. They do, but I’m not sure easygoing charisma is appropriate given the raw material. Medium-bodied, medium-acid grapes such as pinot gris, grenache blanc, ribolla gialla, viura or vernaccia can be steered toward the light and crisp style many people expect a white wine to be, but why? To make yet another largely forgettable jack-of-all-trades, too hell-bent on capturing the collapsing middle to appreciate its true home closer to the extreme?

That sort of pinot gris is like a person who’s been stuck at the wrong job ever since graduating from college a long time ago, steeped in regret. That sort of pinot gris is pinot grigio, the Italianate version, ampelographically identical. Though the botanical evidence shows pinots grigio and gris to be the same, they simply do not come across as the same – a tribute, I hope, to the place-bound nature of wine. Whether a crapped-out megamart version or a complex, lengthy expression from a conscientious producer, pinot grigio is, practically speaking, its own thing.

Anyway, when I turn to pinot gris, I want to go big. That’s because eventually a good pinot gris will astonish me with its depth and weighty mystery. As we emerge from summer’s levity to autumn’s gravitas (and a certain autumn-commemorating holiday in November), pinot gris is a useful partner.

Part of pinot gris’ weirdness stems from the irreducibly varied characteristics you can get from it. The dark-hued, early-ripening, high-sugar grape can be processed in a wide variety of ways: not just along the spectrum from early-picked light and fruity to late-hanging potent and full-bodied, but also mesmerizing (or utter-failure) skin-fermented gray-pink and orange wines as well as late-harvest dessert wines.

Pinot gris is, as the name implies, a mutation from pinot noir, its origins therefore in Burgundy. From there it migrated in multiple directions, but most famously and lastingly northeast to Alsace and southeast to Italy. It is now planted all around the wine world, with Oregon and New Zealand producing especially noteworthy examples.

The common distinction is that pinot gris from Alsace yields rich and oily wines, while the Oregon versions are more lean and crunchy. The distinction holds up to a certain extent, though it isn’t reliable. I’ve found taut and mineral pinot gris from Alsace and fat, softened wines from Willamette.

The more decisive factors lie in both climate and viticultural choices. Like other early-ripening varietals, the grapes need cool temperatures and heat-retaining soils to produce grapes with a good balance of sugar and acid. And since a large number of pinot gris grapes can grow on a given vine, yield reduction through pruning and/or green harvest (sacrificing underripe grapes to promote the development of the ripe ones) is crucial.

Alsatian pinot gris comes on very strong. Whereas so many other complex wines, white or red, strike first from their floral and fruity attributes, only secondarily delving into the earth, Alsatian pinot gris seems to erupt from underground – or at least from a hard-working, jam-packed oven. Warm baking spices like cinnamon, clove and allspice predominate; often there are gingery, honeyed, root-vegetable elements as well.

Then there’s the infamous feel of these wines in the mouth. The descriptive term “oily” is perhaps overused, but like so many clichés, it holds substantial truth. The viscous, slightly bitter savor of good olive oil is an apt analogy for Alsatian or Alsatian-style pinot gris. When these wines fail most spectacularly, it’s because they’re trying to coast on that luxurious fatty texture alone, without bringing along splashes of reviving acidity.

Start with Alsace if you favor origin myths. Start with Oregon if you prefer a more recognizable story. That state has created an entirely new set of benchmark categories with its style of Burgundian grapes, most famously the pinots noir and gris. Whereas Oregon pinot noir is most successful as a stylistic bridge between Burgundy and California, Oregon pinot gris seems to elide the perspectives of Alsace and Friuli. That means a much fresher fruit aspect, with more lifted floral aromas and an altogether brighter approach.

In addition to a standout example of each for you to try, there’s an outlier that’s simply too cool to keep under wraps.

Hugel Pinot Gris Classic 2012 ($23) is true to its name. Each traditional Alsatian producer is known for a particular style – some more plush, others more tense; some with noticeable residual sugar left in the wines, other dedicated to dryness. While some of Hugel’s wines are too burly, this pinot gris strides a middle path and mates beautifully with many foods.

It has that marzipan and baking-spice largesse and the classic oily texture, along with a unique savory fusion of flavors that reminds me of mincemeat pie. A bold, heady wine, it’s not really out to please, but after a while it ends up sweeping you off your feet anyway.

The St. Innocent Pinot Gris 2012 ($27), from Willamette Valley in Oregon, takes more direct aim. You actually get a bracing smack of fruit right off the front. There’s still an oily feel in the mid-palate, but it’s surrounded by more acidity than in the Hugel, like a well-made dressing of olive oil and lemon juice.

Drizzle that dressing on some greens, to eat alongside mussels steamed in a garlic-rich broth. The wine’s balanced bitterness and herbal tang head in that direction, whereas for the Hugel you’d be better off with a soft cheese, white meat or hearty white fish.

Note with both of these wines that the current vintage is 2012, a good year or two older than most whites on the market. These wines are already spot on but easily have another couple of good years ahead of them.

I’ll say the same for a younger wine, the Denis Jamain Reuilly Pinot Gris 2014 ($22), a light-copper-colored Loire Valley pinot gris made by letting the skins macerate with the crushed juice for some time before fermentation. This is a completely different style of wine from the other two, drier and more toned, with dramatically more acidity and less of the usual fat on the palate. Think of a Provençal rosé and you’re getting close.

It retains pinot gris’ naturally assertive, earthy character but expresses much more elegance and high-toned mineral flair, in an overall airier mode. Still intense, with extraordinarily beautiful floral aromatics, it leaves the oven-baked rooms behind for the fresh seaside meadow outside. I love its briny character, chalky texture and light tomato-water delicacy.

If you get into pinot gris, you’ll be fascinated by the Jamain wine’s ability to simultaneously inhabit and expand this grape’s native character. If you don’t get into pinot gris, well, that’s the easy way out of a somewhat strange, challenging situation.

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

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