The Grape & The Flour
Wine and pasta, it is the perfect marriage of simplicity and depth. A simple flour-based filler with what is often a simple tomato based sauce. Add to that a glass of fermented grapes and a certain magic occurs. It is in the details that this marriage – like all marriages – becomes exciting, with depths of flavours, unique chemistry and joy to be found. It is a fusion that can inspire hours of conversation, as well as pleasure for those who are brave enough to experiment.
Whisper it Quietly: It Doesn’t Have to Be Italian…
It is common practice to pair pasta with Italian wines, which makes sense on a superficial level because pasta is, of course, quintessentially Italian. And we mentioned the safety of this choice and its reason in one of our first blog posts about food pairing. But as we said, as safe as this might be, it is a somewhat superficial take on the pairing of wine and pasta.
For starters, Italian grapes also thrive in other parts of the world, with some Californian wines being great examples. This adds a different quality to the wines while maintaining the core character that the grape affords. In some cases, a new world Nebbiolo grape might suit a simple tomato sauce better than one originating in Italy. Opening these possibilities up might lead to the discovery of a magnificent pairing that may otherwise go unnoticed.
And needless to say, the world of wine is too vast to cut out choices based on geography only.
Wine for Tomato Based Vegetarian Sauce
Ah, the classic tomato sauce! As always with food, simplicity and the best ingredients are key. Just add a little basil, onion or garlic – be careful, as connoisseurs might get pretty religious about which one you choose – and salt and you have a staple of Italian cooking that is as versatile as it is delicious. This versatility is also relevant to the wine that can be paired with it. Crisp whites, such as a quality Semillon, work perfectly with olive oil and garlic, enhancing the flavour of both, rather than overpowering them. For reds, fresh tomatoes compliments and complements the sweet berry tones of Nebbiolo or Tempranillo. This is due to the acidity in the tomatoes working perfectly with the sweetness and lightness of touch these grapes provide.
Wine for Meat and Tomato Sauces
Heavy reds are not suitable for many pasta dishes, which is a “mistake” that many make when pairing these dishes with wine. It is always tempting to think heavy reds are well-suited for dining, due to their depth of flavour, which itself seems to lean towards the experience of eating. In regards to pasta, heavier reds suit meat dishes almost exclusively. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti and Barolo wines are perfect for a heavy ragù sauce – minced meat on a vegetables base, most commonly tomato – as would a hot climate-based Shiraz, with its extra ripened robustness complimenting the heavier ingredients beautifully. Two great suggestions would be boar meat ragù with Barolo, which opens up the flavours to a wondrous intensity: this pairing is often found in typical Piedmont restaurants.
Another would be Amatriciana, with its tangy pancetta – or guanciale, in its traditional recipe – essentially pork within a tomato and onions base sauce: this dish responds particularly well with Nebbiolo grapes.
Wine for Creamy Sauces
Not all clichés are ripe for mockery, with creamy – but not necessarily with cream – white sauces for pasta, the received wisdom is correct: white wine is best. Carbonara, with chopped pancetta – or, again, guanciale as per the original recipe – eggs and pecorino cheese, requires a crispy white wine that can complement without overpowering. There are many wines to choose from, with Chardonnay being a particularly relevant grape in this case, as well as a perfect example of a legendary Burgundy wine paired with a typical Italian giant.
Furthermore, pesto – with its pine nuts and basil chemistry – is highly suitable for most Sauvignon Blancs, so a look at selections of Loire wines might be a good starting point. A good rule of thumb would be to avoid oaky infused wines for those with a more mineral quality.
Wine for Seafood Pasta Dishes
Talking of seafood, this is one of the most complex chemistries to cultivate a paring for. The simple reason for this lies in the seafood part of the equation. With so many flavours, ways of preparing and sauces to go with fish, it is not easy to advocate one wine to suit all. Fresh prawns are typically cooked in garlic and chilli, lending itself well to the previously mentioned Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, crispness is key here. Some great dishes to pair these wines with include Spaghetti alle Vongole (clams) and Penne with Prawns.
But what about something like salmon, a fish that can be smoked, roasted or steamed with a variety of herbs and spices? A good rule of thumb is to avoid smokier wines with fresh salmon, as it can overwhelm the buttery nature of the fish. For smoked, reds can work best, particularly a lighter grape, such as Pinot Noir. Some seafood dishes also use tomato based sauces, which further complicates the matter. Each of these dishes will depend largely on the herbs used within it, but you can afford to be a little bolder in terms of flavour for these dishes than you might otherwise for seafood.
Understand the Rules. Then Break Them!
One of the most infuriating aspects of viticulture is those that try and set hard and fast rules. The truth is, no matter what someone might tell you, matching wine with food is always a subjective practice. As such, the best advice would be to experiment and see what suits. Ultimately, like all chemistry, this is a dance where the dancefloor is your palate. It is here that the best debates about matching food with wine occur, with some of the best discoveries typically following.