Wine and Pizza…What’s not to love?

Most people, even longtime wine drinkers, reach for a beer when they reach for pizza. However, all you need to do is follow a few simple tips, and you can enjoy your pizza with a perfect wine match.

Remember….When it Comes to Pizza, It’s What’s On Top That Counts!  The trick to matching pizza with wine is to consider the topping.  The pizza itself is just bread, which wine tasters can use to cleanse their palates.  So it’s not the dough, it’s what’s on top  that will affect your wine choice.

Pesto Pizza 

With pizzas that substitute pesto for tomato sauce, try a crisp white with fruity, herbal, and perhaps pine-nutty flavors.  Such wines will blend fabulously with the light, herbal, vegetal flavors topping the pizza and won’t overpower the lighter flavors resting atop the dough. 

Choose a wine with a good zing of acidity…after all, even vegetarian pizzas have plenty of cheese, and your  palate will appreciate the refreshing, cleansing affect of the acid.  Look for wines with flavors of citrus (especially lemon), fresh herbs, green bell pepper, almonds, or pine nuts.  There are endless inexpensive Italian and New World white wines that will fit the bill.

Wine Matches for Pesto Pizza:

Tocai Friulano: The signature white wine from Italy’s Friuli Region, this fleshy white wine combines hints of peach, pear, and almonds with a subtle zing of acidity and a good deal of palate-cleansing acidity.

Pinot Grigio: It’s an iconic Italian White Wine, for good reason…it goes great with Italian Food!  Look for a Pinot Grigio from the “Tre Venezie” region in Northwest Italy, and you will find an expressive white wine with full of citrus flavors, nutty aromas and round, expressive character.

Prosecco: The uber-popular sparkling white wine of Northeast Italy makes an ideal match for any of the herb-infused foods of Italy, so it is a natural for Pesto Pizza!  Loads of citrus flavors, crisp acidity and the mouth mouth-watering flavors in the wine world make this a great choice!

Soave: This delightful, rich, white blend from Italy’s Veneto region is a blend of  (generally) Garganega, Pinot Bianco and Trebbiano grapes. Soave is known for aromas of citrus and apples, mouth-filling fruit flavors and a cool, soothing acidity.

Vernaccia di San Gimignano: The super-star white wine of Italy’s Tuscany region, this crisp white shows aromas and flavors of citrus, apple, almond and herbs…a perfect match for Pesto Pizza!  A cute note of trivia is that this white wine was originally cultivated in Tuscany as a blending grape in the Chianti mix.

The Margherita

The classic Neapolitan pie, the Margherita, is the most popular pizza in most upscale pizzerias.  Traditionally made on a very thin crust, the topping consists of a thin layer of crushed, or sliced tomatoes, a few slices of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil leaves and olive oil. 

The acidity of the tomatoes and the creamy tang of the cheese can rob the grandeur from big, bold wines, so save the aged Cabernets and the Barolo for another occasion.  The best wines for Margherita Pizza are simple, fruit-driven, soft textured reds, or full-bodied, richly fruited whites.

Wine Matches for the Margherita Pizza:

Gavi: A white wine from Italy’s Piedmont region, this cool, clean, and crisp wine is made from the Cortese grape.  Several regions in Piedmont claim Gavi as their own…but the finest (imho) is “Gavi di Gavi.”  Look for fruit, mineral, and green apple flavors on the palate, built around a crisp zing of acidity.

Arneis: A white wine made in Italy’s Piedmont region, this bright, tingly white wine with aromas of grapefruit, wild mountain herbs and smoke is an ideal match for many foods…sausage, seafood, pasta with tomato sauce or even…Margherita Pizza!  Watch out for Arneis…you may have a new  favorite white wine.

Verdicchio: A specialty of Central Italy’s Marche Region, this fresh but full-bodied white wine is redolent with sour apple, pear, and green herbs, all cleaned up with a fresh blast of acidity and a unique bitter-almond finish.

Valpolicella: The classic red wine of Italy’s Veneto Region is a medium bodied, soft wine with spicy cherry flavors.  This ancient wine is
made from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes. Valpolicella has a sharp, rustic edge which, in my mind, makes it a perfect partner for pairing with pizza.

Dolcetto: This delightful red grape makes some amazing wines in Italy’s Piedmont region.  The name means “the little sweet one”, but don’t expect a sweet wine…this wine ferments to total dryness while retaining its rich cherry, blackberry and spice flavors…an ideal match for Pizza Margherita.

The Meat Lover’s Pizza

If you add sausage, salami, or pepperoni to your pizza, you need more than ever to have a good deal of acidity in your wine.  Your palate (and quite possibly your belly) will need it to cut through the richness of the gooey, dripping pizza…acidity it the key ingredient in a wine that will allow it to stand up to the richness of the fatty meats and baked dough, not to mention the cheese!

You also want to up the scales when it comes to the weight or texture of the wine, and for best results, stick to red wines.  Food of this sort requires a wine that can stand up to the challenge of heavy food.  However, keep it on the fruity side…we don’t need any bitterness or richly tannic wines here, they will lose their charm.  Stick to full-bodied, intensely fruity red wines with a sturdy zing of acidity.

Wine Matches for Meat Lover’s Pizza:

Barbera: Another one of Northwest Italy’s red grapes, Barbera makes some of the juiciest, zingiest red wines on earth.  Look for crisp, cherry-flavored acidity balanced with spicy and smoky aromas and “extracted” black fruit flavors.

Chianti Classico: Italy’s most famous wine is well-known for good reason:
the Sangiovese-based blend makes medium-bodied, earthy red wines with
low tannin and hints of cherry, berry, smoke, and spice on the nose and palate.  It’s a perfect pizza wine!

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo: Always soft and generous, with a heaping helping of blackberry fruit, Montepulciano is a great pizza wine.  Underneath all that jammy fruit is a sold structure, a whiff of earthiness, and a pleasurable hint of coffee and herbs.

Primitivo: Primitivo is Italy’s answer to Zinfandel.  As a matter
of fact, Primitivo is either the same grape as Zinfandel,or very closely related, depending on who you ask.  This famous grape of South Italy’s Puglia
region makes wines that are very similar to Zin but in a lighter style.  You
will still find the blackberry, black pepper and cocoa aromas of your favorite
Zin, but without the “punch you in the gut” heavy feel.

Nero d’Avola: Sicily’s most prominent native grape, this deep, rich wine is full of black fruit flavors with a hint of exotic spice.  Despite its voluptuous build, this wine remains moderate on the tannins and heavy on the  raspberry, blackberry and raisin flavors.


Daring Pairing: Barbeque Reds!

Fire up the grill and pour me a glass…

You have to admit, the food phenom known as Barbeque has a lot going for it…the richest of meats, made even juicier and more complex through contact with a hot grill and rising smoke; plus the added flavor of whatever rub, marinade or sauce the griller fancies.  That’s a lot for a wine to handle! So the question of the day is….what wine should we choose to stand up to all that flavor, those spices, that smoke?  Have no fear…there are lots of Wines that can rise to the challenge.  We even invented a name for them…Barbeque Reds.

So…what makes a wine a Barbeque Red?

It’s affordable: An affordable wine complements the casual nature of barbequing.  Save your vintage Cabernet and fine, oak-aged Chardonnays for a more formal dinner, or, at the very least, an occasion where most people are wearing shirts and shoes.

It’s low-to-medium in tannin and bitterness: It’s a good idea for a barbeque red to be low to medium in the tannin department.  The char (bark) on some barbeque (yum) can contain a hint of bitterness, so it’s best to avoid an overtly tannic or bitter wine.

It’s fruit-forward: Fruit flavors tend to blend well with spicy or smoky flavors.  The fruitiness of the wine will also help avoid a “sweet food – dry wine” clash that might occur due to any brown sugar, honey, molasses or other sweet ingredients in your bbq sauce or rub. Look for flavors of cherry, raspberry, blackberry, cranberry, or red plum. Another note:  If you like slightly sweet red wines like sparkling shiraz or brachetto d’acqui, these wines will be able to withstand even the sweetest of bbq rubs beautifully – you might be surprised by how well they work.

Whatever you do, don’t look for barbeque red on the label or stroll around your wine store looking for the barbeque section.  Instead, use the following guide to find a tried and true Barbeque Red—these have all worked for me!

Merlot: Merlot has all the qualifications of a barbeque red…low tannins, lush textures, plenty of personality, and those ripe, fruity cherry-blackberry-plum-flavors. A good bet is a Merlot from Sonoma County in California, or one of the many ultra-affordable Merlots from Chile.

Australian Shiraz: Look for the widely distributed, affordable, rich, round, and fruity style. Australian Shiraz is also known for big, spicy flavors, which makes this a great wine to set beside your grill.  Australian Shiraz is unique in that it is generally big, bold, and spicy, and yet it is able to keep the tannins in check.

Zinfandel: Big, bold, and incredibly fruity, the blackberry flavors will just jump out of the glass, followed by black pepper, clove, cinnamon, and sweet spices.  Breathe deeply and you may even notice an aroma of chocolate….an added bonus for Zin lovers!

Beaujolais: Made from 100% Gamay grapes, this wine typically holds the true cherry-berry-red plum fruit flavors front and center, keeps the tannins in check, and is always affordable.

Malbec from Argentina: It makes sense that the wine from the land of the asado would be perfect for BBQ. Must be something about the country’s extreme love for grilled meats of all kinds!  Argentine Malbec is a fruity, spicy, full-bodied, high-extract wine with low to medium tannins.  This big, bold, juicy fruit bomb, of a wine is ideally suited to spicy, grilled, and barbequed foods of all kinds.

Barbera: Barbera is an ancient grape variety with its roots in Italy, where today it remains the second most widely planted red variety, after Sangiovese.  The majority of the Barbera wines you find will be from Piedmont, Italy, but you may find a version or two from California as well.  Barbera wines have the unusual, but interesting, combination of being deep and dark in color while light in tannins!  Great for a Barbeque Red!  The main flavor in this wine is fruit…think cherry, blackberry, plum, and cassis, followed by spice, vanilla, and a hint of cola.  Try this wine with anything your grill puts out!

Dry of off-dry Rosé: Rosé just might be your best choice for barbeque.  It’s served cold, it’s very refreshing, and that’s a welcome thing between gulps of spicy, smoky barbeque.  The fruity flavors of the wine will balance out the spiciness and heat of the meat, and there’s no tannin to speak of.  This this wine won’t compete with, or maybe even stand up to, the flavors of ‘que, but it will be a refreshing, cooling break between bites.  It’s also the perfect wine for the times when you may find yourself with fish, chicken, or veggies on the grill. My personal favorite is Mulderbosch Rosé of Caberent Sauvignon from Stellenbosch, South Africa. Try it, you’ll see what I mean!

Daring Pairing: Champagne and Chocolate!

Careful with that….

Champagne and Chocolate

This one sounds like such a good idea!  How Romantic! How Decadent! How Divine!

Now…stop right there! Come back to reality!   This daring pairing is very controversial, which is a geeky way of saying that a lot of people love it, and a lot of people hate it.  Just do a web search on “Champagne and Chocolate” – you will find a million articles saying how great it is, and a million articles saying how awful it can be.  Just wait until Valentine’s Day…nearly every wine blogger on the planet will have something to say about truffles and bubbles.

The problem is…chocolate is a very hard food item to pair with wine.  Chocolate is loaded with sweetness, fat, and bitterness…all taste components that are tough on wine.  There certainly are wines that can handle chocolate as a pairing partner, but they tend to be red (to handle the intense flavor and the over-dose of fat), and sweet (to handle the intense sweetness of the chocoalte).

When I make a recommendation for wine with chocolate I usually suggest Ruby Porto, Late Harvest Zinfandel or Banyuls for Bittersweet Chocolate and Brachetto d’Acqui or Tawny Porto for Milk Chocolate.  Hmmmm…none of these wines bear any resemblance to that most delicate of bubblies…the wine we call Champagne.

So…when we pair this bruiser-of-the-food-world up with the most delicate of wines, chaos ensues!  To be technical about it, the wine’s acidity and bitterness come forward, the delicate flavors are crushed, and what you are left with is something that reminds you of fizzy mouthwash!

A Better Idea with Chocolate:

Demi-Sec or Doux Champagne…that’s sweet Champagne to you newbies, and it gives the wine the ability to handle the sweetness in the chocolate. 

Rosé Champagne, Cava Rosado – pink bubbly has an extra dose of fruitiness, which allows the wine a better chance to still taste good when paired with something sweet.

Brachetto d’Acqui – Italy’s perfect match for chocolate:  slightly sweet, slightly red, slightly bubbly.

Sparkling Shiraz – A far cry from Champagne, I know – but slightly sweet versions are a good choice to pair with chocolate.

 In other words, if you want to pair bubbles with chocolate and want the wine to taste good…choose a sparkling wine with some sweetness or some pink or red color…at least the wine has a chance!                           


Daring Pairing: Red Wine with Fish

Fish can work with red wine...sometimes...

Red Wine with Fish

You know you’ve heard it…you’ve probably even lived it.  It’s the ultimate food and wine pairing cliché, chanted like a mantra by those who know just-a-little about wine.  Or food.  Or the pairing thereof.  So, here goes – and please don’t even think about taking this out of context or daring to quote me on this…it’s “white with fish, red wine with meat.” Now, as far as clichés go, this is not the worst.  There is some very good reasoning behind this line, and it is very true that red wine tends to overpower the delicate flavors of fish.

Here’s the truth behind the story.  The danger of a red wine and fish combo has to do with salt, acid, and tannin as well as delicacy of flavor.  It has even been noted that the iron content of red wine can be responsible for an overly “fishy” aftertaste as a result of a red wine and fish combination.

Salt, as well, can be vey tough on wine, especially red wine.  Salty foods tend to combine well with the acidity in most white wines, but salt clashes with tannin – plain and simple. It you want to try to experience this for yourself, have a handful of salted pretzels and followed by a gulp of Napa Cab. The combination can cause a bitter, metallic taste and mouthfeel when the two combine in just the wrong way.  So, the salt naturally present in most seafood, as well as the salt added in preparation, can cause an unpleasant effect when matched with high-tannin wines.  It’s not the color…it’s the tannin.

Then there is the acidity.  Many fish dishes are finished with lemon…the zing of acidity from that lemon wedge on the side of the plate adds a liveliness to a fish preparation that can otherwise be bland.  If your fish preparation doesn’t include lemon, it is likely to have some acidic ingredient such as capers, tomatoes, or even pickles mixed into mayonnaise and called tartar sauce.  As you know if you’ve read “The Real Rules of Food and Wine Pairing (see my posts from May 2011) acidity in a dish requires an equal acidic zing in the wine.  Most white wines are high in acid, which makes them a good match for the acidity in a fish dish.  Most red wines, on the other hand, are low acid.  That zing you get in a red wine is most likely from tannin or bitterness.  Acidity and bitterness may be feel the same on your palate but they interact with food in radically different ways. 

Thus, a cliché is born, and now we have what many people think is a food pairing rule.

So…it’s possible to pair red wine with fish…we just need to define a “fish-worthy red wine.”  Here goes: 

Low Tannin

Higher Acidity

Moderate Flavor Intensity

Light to Medium Body

Here is Miss Jane’s list of “Fish-Worthy Red Wines”.  Try one the next time you have salmon, monkfish or snapper, and let me know how it goes!

Pinot Noir…From Burgundy, Oregon, California or New Zealand

Beaujolais…Maybe your best bet!

Chianti and other wines made with Sangiovese

Cabernet Franc from California

Chinon – Cab Franc from the Loire

Barbera…Piedmont’s easy drinking red

Try it with a Beaujolais Cru!

Daring Pairing: Artichokes with Wine!

Psycho Wine Killer?

Daring Pairing:  Artichokes with Wine!

Psycho Wine Killer???

Artichokes have been called the “psycho wine killers” of the vegetable kingdom. At least they have been called that by me, and in some cases artichokes can be a tough plate to pair.  Here’s why:  artichoke leaves contain natural tannin, which is actually not bad for wine pairing.  They also contain a rare chemical called cynarin, a type of organic acid.  On some palates, anything eaten after a food that contains cynarin will taste sweet; on others the taste will be bitter.  Either way, we have a challenge.

In Artichokes and Wine, Preparation is Everything

When it comes to wine with artichokes, the trick just might be to tame the wine-killing aspects of the vegetable in the cooking process. Try these tips to tame your artichoke:

  • Serve with a garlicky or spicy sauce such as aioli, which seems to minimize the “sweetness” reaction.
  • Grill the artichokes. It seems to calm the cynarin.
  • Put them in their place:  Serve with tomato-based sauce in a complex dish or ragout.

Wines for Artichokes…If You Dare

Wine will stand a chance with artichokes if you choose very dry wines with high acidity and very little natural bitterness.  Try these ideas:

  • Extra Brut or Brut Champagne, Cava, or Sparkling Wine
  • Prosecco
  • Dry Chenin Blanc such as Vouvray
  • South African Sauvignon Blanc (something about those Grapefruit flavors)
  • High acid Italian white such as Arneis or Cortese (such as Gavi)
  • High acid, fruity Italian Red Wine such as a Barbera or Dolcetto 
  • Dry Rosé…and don’t forget dry Rosé bubbly…the sexiest wine in the world!

    It can work!

The Real Rules of Food and Wine Pairing, Part Three

In the last two posts, we’ve learned that food and wine should be paired up with an eye to their tastes, flavors, and textures.  We’ve also discussed the three concepts most important to making that world-class match.  Today…we reveal the “real rules” -those flavor dynamics that occur when wine meets food – and how to make them work for us!

The Real Rules…Here they are!  

  1. Any level of acidity in food…whether it is a squeeze of lemon or a topping of tomatoes, will diminish your ability to taste acidity in wine.  Simply stated, acid in food makes acid in wine less apparent.  If you are starting with a tart, high-acid wine, acidic foods will make your wine taste smoother.  The flip-side of this rule is that acidic foods can wash out low-acid wines and make them taste flabby – beware!  Acidic foods require high-acid wines.
  2. Sweet food will make the sweetness of a wine less apparent and bring out the other characters of a wine, be it acid, tannin, or bitterness.  If a wine does not contain any discernible sweetness, sweet food will reduce the fruity flavors and bring out acidic, tannic, and earthy tastes and flavors.  One of the biggest mistakes people make is pairing a savory food with a sweet sauce…like roast pork with apples…with dry, tannic wines.  Such dishes require a slightly sweet wine – or a very, very fruity wine for a good match.
  3. Fatty foods will smooth out acidity, and sometimes the tannin in any style of wine.
  4. Salty food goes well with acidic wines – they “turbocharge” each other.
  5. Salty food goes well with slightly sweet wines – it’s the trail mix effect.
  6. Salty foods are a conundrum with bitter or tannic wines. In the case of mildly salty foods (prepared with good-quality salt), a bit of salt can help diminish the perception of bitterness and perhaps the tannin in a wine. However, iodized salt can emphasize bitter or tannic flavors in certain wines, as can too much salt—so be careful with ultra-salty foods and please tell the chef to ditch the can of cheap iodized salt!
  7. Bitter tastes in foods enhance bitter tastes in wines – beware!!
  8. Matching a flavor in the food with a similar flavor in the wine (such as “herbal”) is called a “flavor bridge” and will most likely be a great match.  Flavor matching is almost always successful and can be a very fun, creative way to pair up food and wine…but be sure the taste components are dealt with before you attempt any flavor match-ups!
  9. Flavor contrasts, will work very well when the flavors mesh together.  Experiment and have fun!  Fruit with Fish?  Herbs with Lamb?  If it works, we call this blend of flavors a “natural affinity” (meaning quite simply “they go well together!).  Happy note:  almost all flavors in food and wine go well together…it’s rare to find a real “clash”.
  10. Texture matches, such as light-bodied wines with light-bodied foods, and rich wines with rich food, are always a reliable match.  Also keep in mind that in the case of rich food (roast beef with cheddar mashed potatoes or apricot-white chocolate cheesecake), sometimes having a lighter wine as the pairing partner will provide a bit of welcome palate relief and refreshment. The rich food/lighter wine pair-up also allows the food the be the “star of the show” which is sometimes what you are looking for! Many somms consider the textural component to be the most important aspect in the wine-and-food equation, but don’t forget that it is the taste components in the food that really have the ability to change the way a wine is perceived.
  11. It’s all relative…these rules can help forecast the interactions between food and wine in simple (taste, flavor, texture) terms. However…whether or not a match is considered to be “good” is subjective, and dependent upon the personal tastes and preferences of the beholder. Folks vary quite a bit in their ability to perceive and appreciate the various forms of food and drink. So the bottom line is…if you like it, drink it!

Cheers and Bon Appetit!

The Real Rules of Food and Wine Pairing, Part Two

In yesterday’s post we learned that food and wine pair up, for better or worse, based on their tastes, flavors, and textures.  Today, in installment number two, we Get to Know “The Three Concepts”  vital to a perfect pairing.

Step two on the path to becoming a food a wine genius:  Master the Three Key Concepts…repeat them like a mantra!

Key Concept #1:  You don’t pair to flavor, you pair to taste.

Lots and lots of well-meaning people think they know food and wine pairing because they heard – somewhere in wine and food cliché-land – that you can match or contrast flavors in food and wine.  That’s true, you can…but the result is virtually meaningless (and can be a disaster) if you haven’t first dealt with the major taste components in both the food and the wine.

It’s worth repeating…the most important component in any food and wine match-up is the taste components…sweet, acid, salt, bitter, oil, and tannin.  The presence of any of these in your food will change the way you perceive your wine…for better, or worse!

Key Concept #2:  You don’t pair to protein, you pair to preparation.   

If someone tells you they are serving up turkey, fish, or poultry for dinner, your food-and-wine pairing job has just begun.  About the only usable information we can get from this tidbit is a hint as to the overall texture of the dish.  Otherwise, we have nothing.  Let’s face it, protein is bland.  Fish, chicken, and pork have almost no taste components in them (save for varying levels of fat and a bit of umami – more on that later) before they are prepared.

What do you really need to know before making a match?   Hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you know…you want to know what tastes are involved.  It all depends on preparation…is it broiled, fried, steamed, and even more importantly…how is it seasoned, served, or sauced?  That’s what you need to know!

Key Concept #3:  You pair to the “The Key Elements” in a dish. 

To be really, really good at pairing food and wine, you must develop an instinct for discerning the key elements in a food or wine….the tastes, the flavors, and the textures.  Most meals are a cacophony of tastes, flavors, and textures, and most wines contain at least two taste components and might carry dozens of flavors.  It would take hours to figure out a perfect pairing based on all the information available, even for the simplest meal!  So, we have to learn to cut through the clutter and figure out the one or two elements of a wine or a dish that will most impact the pairing.

A very good rule of thumb is that is the major taste components (acid, sweet, salt, bitter, oil, or tannin) are present in a discernible level in either the food or the wine, those taste components will be among the key elements.  After you have figured out the tastes, try to discern the key flavors.  Other components that might be one of your key elements include spiciness, heat as from chili peppers, or an extreme of texture such as the lightness of a lemon soufflé or the heaviness of roast prime rib accompanied by cheddar cheese mashed potatoes.

One word of caution in this step is not to rely too heavily on generalities.  Wine and food are all about creativity and subtlety so take each wine and dish on its own merits. In addition, people vary in the ability to perceive and enjoy all aspects of food and wine, including even the most carefully considered pairings. In other words, if you enjoy it – drink it!

Once you develop a knack for breaking a food or wine down into its key elements, and you can learn to apply a few simple rules (see tomorrow’s post) and have a great chance at a great pairing!

MAJOR CAVEAT: People vary in the ability to perceive and enjoy tastes, flavors, and textures as well as a range of food and wine (by themselves and in any combination). If it works for you…go for it!