Beyond Chianti -- a guide to pairing wine with pasta
Pasta is the ultimate blank food canvas; What matters is the sauce
Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor.
If you want to get a sense of the scale of Italian wine, you could do worse than to go to VinItaly, the annual wine-related trade fair in Verona, Italy. I was there a few days ago, along with, according to the VinItaly press office, more than 140,000 other people - roughly the population of Fort Collins, Colorado, if every inhabitant of Fort Collins were obsessed with Italian wine. Regardless, being in Italy means the opportunity to eat, regularly, platefuls of fantastic pasta.
Since I've got pasta on the mind - in fact, since I'm mostly composed of pasta at the moment - here are some thoughts about pairing wine (Italian wine, of course) with some classic pasta dishes. Of course, the actual pasta itself doesn't make much difference: When it comes to wine-pairing, a rigatoni is a penne is an orecchiette. Pasta alone is the ultimate blank food canvas; what matters is the sauce.
Like other light-bodied white wines, Pinot Grigio pairs well with lighter foods (for an analogy to "light-bodied" or "full-bodied" in wine, think of milk: skim milk, light-bodied; 2 percent milk, medium-bodied; whole milk, full-bodied). It's also light in terms of attitude - there's none of the aggressive citrus-pepperiness of Sauvignon Blanc here, for example.
So, for pasta to serve with Pinot Grigio, skip cream sauces, skip the rich meat sauces and concentrate on delicacy: olive oil, white wine, fresh herbs, possibly some shellfish. One classic possibility: linguine with white clam sauce.
The principal grape of Tuscany (and so Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, etc.), Sangiovese leans towards crisp acidity and bright berry fruit. Much in the way that a tart white like Sauvignon Blanc is actually an ideal partner for an acidic salad dressing,
Sangiovese's fresh acidity makes it a good match for anything involving tomatoes, from a simple marinara sauce (or the classic Tuscan tomato-and-bread soup, pappa al pomodoro) to sauces like puttanesca, amatriciana, alla norma...the list goes on and on. Generally speaking, foods with high acidity are apt to overwhelm wines that don't have a complementary level of acidity.
Nebbiolo - the Piedmontese grape of Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as the red wines of Gattinara, Ghemme and Carema--tends when young to be firmly, even ferociously, tannic, with bright acidity and seductive aromas (violets, roses, truffles, cherries). In Piedmont, you might drink it with agnolotti del plin, the tiny "pinched" ravioli filled with a mix of pork, beef or veal, or rabbit served with butter and sage, that are native to the region.
And for me, Nebbiolo and truffles - or mushrooms, particularly porcini - are meant to be married. Think pasta with a wild mushroom cream sauce, enhanced with a little fresh thyme. Think pasta with butter and white truffles. Lots of white truffles. Lots and lots of white truffles. But that someone else is paying for.
To my mind, the emphatic red varieties of southern Italy, such as Primitivo, Negroamaro or the intensely tannic Aglianico, ask for equally emphatic foods. This is because wine pairing, to me, goes by feel or sensibility as much as it goes anything else.
A pasta that is hearty and earthy and meaty wants a wine that's hearty and earthy and meaty, too (possibly eaten by someone hearty, earthy and meaty, like Shrek). Sauces with sausage; with hot peppers; with sausage and hot peppers; or with pork, veal, sausage, tomatoes, hot peppers and onion, which would be the Basilicatan lu'ntruppc, and lord knows how you pronounce it, but it does sound good, doesn't it?
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