Pairing Italian Reds


During the final weeks of winter, I deplete our pantry’s jars from last year’s garden. This winter we still have fruit butters, heirloom tomato salsa, pickled vegetables, hot sauce and several jars of tomatoes. This is a good thing for me, because despite my husband being a great chef, my go-to winter dish is simply tomato sauce over pasta or rice with sautéed vegetables.

When I made pasta for the kids a few weeks ago, I was thinking about the different versions of spaghetti, lasagna and home-made or carry-out pizzas that hit everyone’s table this winter and I wondered … what is the perfect wine for these common, Italian-inspired foods?

There are several rules of thumb to go by when searching for a good food and wine pairing. One is what grows together goes together, which means dishes from certain areas of the world naturally pair with wines from that same region. For example, a cassoulet pairs beautifully with a wine from Rhone, France. Assorted tapas are delicious matched with a bright Albarino from Spain. Or, blow your mind with a German Riesling paired with a traditional German meat pie topped with sweet and sour fennel-apple kraut!

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Italian reds are wonderful with tomato-driven dishes. But the question I wanted to answer, knowing all of the amazing Italian reds out there, is which one?

I grabbed my wine-drinking gal-pal (who happens to be part Italian), three popular Italian reds that I know to be fabulous wines at a great value, and a couple of tomato-focused dishes then we once again “got to work.”

Our first Italian red was a Montepulciano d’abruzzo, which tends to be light to medium-bodied. It had bright sour cherry notes and high acid with lots of terroir (earth). The first dish was polenta with a simple tomato-garlic marinara. This was a nice pairing, the wine continued to be refreshing and easy to drink.

The second dish was tomatoes cooked in a rich beef broth with chunks of sausage over oregano pasta. The meaty sauce was rich with more complex flavors that overwhelmed the Montepulciano and left it rather tasteless and disappointing. We agreed that a pizza or simple pasta with marinara is best for this wine.

The second wine was a Chianti Classico (from the Sangiovese grape). The wine was absolutely delicious with both of our dishes. This medium-bodied Italian wine has enough acidity to pair with the high-acid tomatoes and enough fruit and complexity to pair with the variety flavors.

With the marinara, the wine was simple but mouth-watering and elegant. With the meaty dish over oregano pasta, the wine was layered and earthy with balanced fruit and acidity. It was wonderful. We also enjoyed this wine by itself — a plus if you don’t consume it all with dinner.

The last wine sampled was a Barbera, the third most planted grape variety in Italy (after the two already described). This wine was medium to full-bodied, darker in color and had notes of black cherry and blackberry. It was also balanced with acidity, but it was more robust and slightly overpowered our food, especially our simple tomato marinara sauce. This wine really could have used a steak or a braised meat dish or we could have happily sipped on it by itself.

So it’s true. Italian reds pair great with tomato-inspired dishes. And although all three of the most popular Italian varietals made delicious wines, if you are searching for a perfect food and wine match, grab a Chianti Classico for you next Italian-inspired meal.

Its versatility with food and its ability to be delicious on its own makes it a perfect red to always keep on hand.

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