hen it comes to food I’ve always seen myself as more of an avid consumer than an expert. But as a cook and a diner who writes about food I’m often asked about wine pairings. While my sommelier friends tell me I have a decent nose — I can recognize the aromas in a glass — that doesn’t qualify me to go around dispensing serious wine-drinking advice.
What I can do is share some partisan views on which wines tend to work with the dishes I make and enjoy. Here then are a few surefire, author-tested hints and reflections regarding elementary wine pairing. Call this a sort of layman’s guide on what to drink when served Italian mealtime classics.
Hint 1. Break the rules Remember the movie “Fight Club”? Well, my first rule of wine pairing is that there is no rule in wine pairing. Don’t worry about conforming to trends. Sure, there are a few popular, even “famous” pairings, but in the end the best combination is what your palate fancies. Put personal preference first.
Most people seem to prefer heartier foods paired with fuller-bodied red wines, and lighter fare complemented by more floral white wines. Again, though, these are generalizations. They’re a place to start, after which you can experiment with your own combinations. Don’t get too caught up in rumored “regulations,” since they can limit the adventure. Again, break the rules. Drink red wine with fish.
Do take care to record the pairings you’ve enjoyed for future reference. Keep mixing and matching; learn how each component, whether subtle or strong, influences the savory texture of a specific dish.
Hint 2. Location, location, location A good rule of thumb when making wine pairing choices is to use local geography as a cheat sheet. If the dish you’re having is a Lazio region specialty (Rome is Lazio’s capital) chances are it’ll go well with a local grape.
For example, I like pairing my abbacchio a scottadito — juicy roasted lamb chops — with a nice chilled white Pecorino, or a stupendous dry and fruity Cesanese red (which also happens to also go extremely well with other cucina romana dishes including stewed oxtail, amatriciana, and tripe).
In Piemonte, a glass of Arneis — rich in texture with hints of peaches, apricots, and pears produced in the bountiful hills of Roero, northwest of Alba — goes well with local recipes including vitello tonnato (as well as with local goat cheeses or a simple plate of tajarin, or egg pasta). Piedmontese Nebbiolos (Barolo, Barbaresco) and Barberas pair well with other regional specialties such as bagna càuda, white truffle laced sunny-side-up eggs, bollito misto and fondue. That’s because of their blackberry and cherry notes, high acidity levels, and tough tannins.
Need more examples? Romagna’s Lambrusco — vivacious and fruit forward — balances the flavor and mouth-feel of the area’s fatty cuisine: cured meats such as mortadella, prosciutto, granulous and nutty Parmigiano, and silken lard-studded tigelle.
Hint 3. Let the flavors interact The tongue can only detect four distinct flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But the amazing nose ranges far and wide. It can pick up on over 200 separate aromas. It’s only thanks to combining taste and smell that we’re able to fully experience culinary and wine nuances. As you pair different wines with different foods, keep in mind that food taste can contradict or complement wine selections, and that both solutions are acceptable. For example, a frizzante (bubbly) Franciacorta can make a bag of salty chips or a slice of pizza taste even more appealing by contrasting saltiness with a soft and creamy feel.
Reading into acidity is also important. Acidic foods — say, radicchio salad with oil and vinegar dressing or anything with a lemon-based sauce — compliment wines that share a similarly acidic undertone, such as Pinot Grigio. Foods on the sweeter side — take a veal piccata or a pumpkin risotto — tend to pair better with wines that are just a bit drier than the food they’re to meant to complement (a dry Ribolla Gialla might fit the bill).
Finally, there’s the matter of house wines. From time to time I overhear travelers eager for wine but reluctant to order the house version (maybe influenced by wine brand culture). I’m a strong advocate of table wines. I often see waiters pushing VEWs — very expensive wines — for obvious reasons. Just seeing that inclines me further towards picking vino della casa.
My advice to non-enophile tourists who want to fully grasp the Italian dining experience is to try both approaches. On the one hand, explore “known” grapes and costlier labels, trusting restaurant staff suggestions; on the other, try house wines, which — if reasonably priced, appropriately gregarious to the menu items, and faithful to locality — can sometimes provide a pleasant surprise.