Beyond Chianti - a guide to pairing wine with pasta
March 30th, 2012
04:30 PM ET
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Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.

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.

Pinot Grigio
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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Filed under: Bite • Content Partner • Dishes • Food and Wine • Italian • Pasta • Sip • Wine

soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Sam Bogale Calgary Alberta

    Great report – can't wait to visit Italy! In the interim will try to incorporate some of your tips @ home!

    April 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
  2. Marco

    This is probably one of the better articles for wine-food pairing. Not that I agree with some of his suggestions, but he put fourth the reason why some wines go better with certain ingredients (acidity, delicate...) It's an old methd that has always rung true. Seeing as there are some posters that seem to believe this 'poppycock', there's an saying going around that says "learn all the rules, then break them". For me, once you have learned and appreciated the fundamentals of wine then you can take your own road.

    April 2, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  3. Liebster Welpe

    Beer better than wine with pasta

    April 2, 2012 at 7:27 am |
  4. The_Mick

    Thanks for the recommendations, Ray. This is a cut-and-paste to Word and then store the file in my recipe folder article!

    April 1, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  5. What The

    I love these stories about which wine to drink with which food.........especially the one's about hot dogs, cheeseburgers and macaroni salad. It's tough to figure out so it's a huuuuuuuuge help to get this expert advice. I'm looking to help on what to drink with a can of cold Dinty Moore, anyone?

    April 1, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • jzaks

      Yea, an ice cold beer. Same with pasta.

      April 2, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  6. Roberto La Monica

    Mr Isle said this, "Pasta alone is the ultimate blank food canvas; what matters is the sauce."

    Wow! He should have saved the pasta and used a Ritz Cracker!

    I that is how he feels about "pasta" then it is obvious he has never had good pasta. "What mates is the sauce", he says. If this is how he feels, it is time to take Mr Ray...away!

    Good pasta alone is a celebration in your mouth (before and after it is cooked). The sauce only makes it look more appealing.

    Yes, the sauces are nice. But pasta with olive oil, basil and a little salt and pepper with a dusting of imported parm cheese can be appreciated with any $100 bottle of wine.

    This article isn't about "pasta". It is about sauces. Don't confuse the two.

    I have been making pasta for over 40 years. My pasta was served in the Tack Room (a 5 star restaurant) in Tucson, AZ. That was 20 years ago and my pasta has gotten any better. My lasagna was served at the Tack Room. It was the best lasagna ever served in that restaurant. The recipe is still a kept secret.

    In memory of Mr. Joseph Bonanno, Tucson, AZ

    March 31, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Carla M.

      Hey! I know are Mike's older brother.

      I dined at the Tack Room and met you with the chef, John and the new chef that took his place. David Lali, I think it was.

      OMG! I had your food. You are right about the wine. Your cooking is so so good.

      I heard you opened a restaurant in Santa Monica. True?

      March 31, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
      • Roberto La Monica

        Yes true. It was David after John.

        Yes I opened and sold the restaurant 5 years later. It is still open but they didn't get all of the recipes.

        I retired 4 yrs ago. I cook only for the family and friends.


        March 31, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  7. bdo1183

    Exactly how stupid do people think we are? food is simple what you drink with dinner depends on two things and two things only 1. what you like 2. What you have on hand or like to buy. All this snooty frasier crane crap is just that crap. You wouldn't choose your breakfast based on what some rich guy told you would you? why would you run out and buy an expensive wine or beer because someone says it goes well with X food or y dessert?

    March 31, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Raphael@bdo1183

      I like Mad Dog 20/20 with a dash of DrPepper,but not for breakfast. That would make me a whine–ohh,similar to you. I like Turtles.

      March 31, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
      • Leon

        I've never seen a turtle – but I know what you mean.

        April 1, 2012 at 8:25 am |
        • Mr. Holden

          You're not helping. Why is that, Leon?

          April 2, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Nat

      It's obvious that you haven't sat down and had someone guide you through pairing wine with certain foods. I always drank what I liked with food until once in France a friend sat me down with four bottles of wine and six dishes. We went through each one with him explaining why this went better with what and the way each wne tasted differently with different foods. It was an life changing experience. I'm no expert and all that but I don't make fun of people who have a more educated palate. One myth I'd like to dispel is that it doesn't have to be expensive wine. We live in a time when you can buy many good wines at a good price. A little education and work will surprise you.

      April 1, 2012 at 11:46 am |
    • Jennie

      While I don't have a problem with 'drink what you like' approach I do appreciate the suggestions as they help me figure out what wines I really like together with the foods I like to eat. For example, I love goat cheese and sauvignon blanc together, it's one of my very favorite combinations, but I never would have known about it if I hadn't read to try to two together somewhere. I don't think that makes me stupid, and I know for sure I am not rich!

      April 1, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  8. rashid

    If I hear pair, infuse or drizzle one more time I'm going to boot. What? I'm too dumb to choose a vino?? Now they're pushing beer pairings. Gab me and I'll have another two fer draft.

    March 31, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Roberto La Monica

      Actually beer is better with pasta. Wine should be drank before or after the pasta meal. You can not enjoy both wine and a good pasta dish at the same time. If you say yes to this you are fooling yourself.

      Beer can be drank during the meal because it does not affect the pallet and distort the taste of the pasta and it's sauces.

      Beer is my all time favorite with lasagna.

      March 31, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
      • Varun

        So all the wine combinations people recommend with pasta is bull sh!t?

        April 1, 2012 at 11:15 pm |
        • jzaks

          You hit the nail on the head.

          April 2, 2012 at 7:06 am |
      • Marco

        In Italy, pizza is strictly beer food. Even people who don't normally drink will easily have a beer with pizza.

        April 2, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Delta

      Again, to rashid, the world doesn't revolve about you. If articles don't apply to you, why get riled up about it? Keep reading and one eventually will hit you right between the eyes.

      April 2, 2012 at 7:16 am |
  9. Bob Tierney

    Who comes with this stuff. Just crack a beer open and be done with it. I have never seen a construction worker heading for a bistro for a wine tasting experince

    March 31, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Pasta Yum

      Bob, you should try some different wines with your dinners. You might just discover you like it. Beers can be a good match too but don't stop there. Have a particular interest in the dining habits of construction workers do you?

      April 1, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
    • Delta

      1. Not everyone works in construction. Nor does everyone idolize them like you seem to.
      2. Not everyone who works in construction drinks beer exclusively (that means "only").
      3. The thing circling you is not actually the universe, but the Klingons around your ... well, nuff said.

      April 2, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • Marco

      Maybe not in the ole U.S. of A, but in Europe it's quite common to go for wine after work. Not the delicate;" let me sniff first", but drinking them down like a cold beer. Different tastes..... BTW in Europe you don't have to go to a bistro for a decent glass of wine and it's as cheap as beer.

      April 2, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  10. Bilvis

    It is just a simple analogy "Drink what you like. Like what you drink"......

    March 31, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
  11. the rooster

    Pair the pasta with whatever tastes good. "White wines" with fish and "dark wines" with meat..... who comes up with these ridiculous guidelines???

    March 31, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  12. Felix El Gato

    I know, drink the wine and eat the pasta.

    March 31, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  13. Kyle Wagers

    Nebbiolo with a mushroom sauce sounds absolutely terrible, in my opinion. Then again I don't like mushrooms, oh well.

    March 31, 2012 at 1:23 am |
  14. Michaela Rodeno

    So jealous, Ray – I've always wanted to go to Vinitaly. Thanks for the mouth-watering report!

    March 30, 2012 at 9:35 pm |
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