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Test drive Italian Pinot Grigios
Italy has captured the title of World's Biggest Producer of Wine.

Fueled by a seemingly endless taste for refreshing Pinot Grigio, Italy has nudged past France, according to the European Commission, and captured the title of World’s Biggest Producer of Wine.

France, obviously, considers itself the mother country of wine production. However, the diverse wine making landscape of Italy –– from mega producers to tiny mom–and–pop wineries, has assembled its collective muscle to squeeze out 4.96 billion liters of wine in 2010. France has to settle for No. 2 with 4.62 billion liters.

While that’s still plenty of l’amour for French juice, Italy has captured the amore of wine drinkers with lower prices and varietals that are enjoyable and beautiful food wines.

This is a real boon for Italy’s wine producing regions, says the EC report. Even in the first quarter of 2011, the outlook remains positive, with a 31 percent increase in export to the US and an even more impressive 146 percent to China.

How inexpensive are the wines? In the past few months, I’ve tasted a Barolo, a typically higher priced, big, red wine, that would cost you about $26 on the retail shelf –– that’s $15 or less than a typical Barolo.

Of course, Sangiovese, the grape that makes Chianti, is all over the market as a stand–alone wine and is cropping up in interesting blends that are going to carry consumer price tags of $9–$15.

But it’s Pinot Grigio that’s driving the Italian wine engine’s growth. Although it originated from Alsace (where it is known as Pinot Gris), Pinot Grigio is still one of Italy’s most popular white wines. Pinot Grigio is popular throughout the world, as a result of both its value and its popularity at dinner tables or parties. In Britain, it is the third most popular choice, following only Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The growth rate of Pinot Grigio is at 17 percent, and is slowly closing on its nearest competitor, Sauvignon Blanc.

Let’s hope Italy manages the export of lower priced wines better than industry peers in Australia, where low priced juice somewhat “corrupted” the image of Aussie wines. The backlash on Australian premium wines resulted in the loss of wineries and some vineyards downunder.

Test drive a Pinot Grigio yourself. In the low to  moderate price range you’ll find expressiveness very similar: bright acidity (perfect for food), hints of floral aromas and a refreshing appeal. Some faves include Kris 2009 ($10.99), San Angelo 2009 ($14.99) and Barone Fine 2010 ($9.99).