An Italian Romance: Wine and Pasta
By: Olga Stepina
De gustibus non disputandum est
(In matters of taste, there can be no disputes)
Every nation has some things that determine or reflect its character. It can be a country’s historical heritage, cultural objects, or distinctive day-to-day habits and lifestyle. There are several things that Italians will declare their love for at any time of day and night. Of course, that includes their beloved mothers, wine, and pasta. It’s hard for the rest of the world to truly understand what these things mean to Italians because it requires growing up under the hot sun of the Apennine Peninsula, having a passionate character, appreciating and admiring every moment of your life…
Italians love doing the things they do. Indeed, why not give your all to something that makes you happy and satisfied, something that fuels your feelings, allows you to express your emotions, and fills your life with color, scents, flavors, and experiences? After all, tempus fugit—time flies…
For Italians, that hallowed word «pasta» represents more than just doughy dishes but also an entire lifestyle and unshakable national traditions. The variety of shapes, hundreds of names, and plenty of unusual sizes of Italian pasta can be confusing to foreigners trying to understand that world.
But it is equally important to understand how pasta is served, and how it can be combined with other foods. Simply knowing the right water-to-pasta ratio for boiling (10:1 in Italy) is not enough, just as it’s not enough to only make pasta from the right kind of wheat and cook it until al dente. You need to understand the soul of any meal where pasta is the main ingredient.
Every aspect of this performance is vital: the right quality of pasta, the sauce, the accompanying drinks, the choice of cutlery, the atmosphere… And when it all comes together, you have a chance to get closer to that feeling described by the Roman poet Martial, who said in his Epigrams: «Hoc est vivere bis, vita posse priore frui» (It is to live twice when you can enjoy the recollection of your life, Lat.).
Of course, tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis (Times are changing, and we are changing with them), but it’s hard to imagine a table of Italian cuisine without a single pasta dish—it would not be a success.
There are currently over seven hundred pasta varieties (spaghetti, capellini, penne, rigatoni, manicotti, fettuccine, etc.). Having these many options is, of course, a delight. Italians potentially regard anything that contains flour and water to be pasta—the actual ratio of these components, their shapes, and accompaniments are secondary. Because the secret of the pasta is in the sauce! It is the sauce that gives a dish its flavor and mood.
Pasta sauces are prepared as a separate dish, and this has always been considered the high art of Italian chefs. When mixed with cooked pasta, the sauce determines what you are going to taste—a salty sea flavor, oriental exotics, the taste of olive forests, creamy tenderness, tempting spicy notes, or hot chilis. And there is another, even bigger challenge: how does one eat pasta correctly, what do you pair it with, and, most importantly, what wine do you serve to enhance the experience?
Let’s use this dish as an example so we can get to the bottom of enogastronomic combinations.
Carbonara (with a traditional sauce made of cheese, eggs, pepper, and salt) and other similar pasta dishes that use cheese sauces pair well with both white and red wines. Opt for the most universal representatives of each kind—Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chardonnay, with its nutty notes in younger wines and rich citrus aromas in older ones, will impress you with its freshness, lightness, and good mineral content. Climate conditions have a significant effect on the flavor of this wine. Italy’s sunny and warm weather allows the grapes to accumulate a good level of butteriness and gain strong tropical aromas (unlike, for instance, in northern regions where this wine has apple notes). This wine highlights the character of the cheese used for the pasta sauce.
When it comes to Italian Chardonnay, we recommend considering wines from Friuli, Bolzano, Trento, and Veneto. These regions specialize in growing Chardonnay grapes, so the winemaking technology and the characteristics of the wine represent these areas’ signature Chardonnay styles. Another great pairing for Carbonara is aged Chardonnay from Apulia. Make sure to serve the wine cool, at 8–12 °С.
Cabernet Sauvignon is a universal wine with such a self-sufficient character that it can be paired with virtually any meal—but when it comes to Carbonara with a cheese sauce, a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon from Tuscany with notes of blackcurrant and high tannin levels will complement the dish perfectly. Another good pairing is dry Cabernet Sauvignon from Veneto, with its well-balanced acidity, smooth texture, and notes of cherry and pepper. Interestingly, this grape variety has recently been expanding into new territories in Italy with their own powerful wine traditions, such as Chianti and Carmignano. Another distinct feature of the Italian market is the popular blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and the autochthonous Sangiovese.
Note that it is recommended to serve Cabernet Sauvignon at room temperature when paired with pasta with a cheese sauce.
If you’re after a more nutritious meal and opt for Spaghetti Bolognese, with its meat-based sauce usually made with pork, beef, carrots, onions, tomatoes, pancetta, celery, red wine, stock and milk, it’s a good idea to pair it with Italian wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco.
The Nebbiolo grapes used to make these wines have not been successfully cultivated anywhere else in the world. It would appear that these changeable and unpredictable grapes have settled on the love of their life—the lands of Piedmont—and aren’t going to give them up for anything else. These grapes are incredibly hard to work with, but the results are worth it: their wines are highly acidic, rich in tannins, have a wonderful bouquet of roses, liquorice and chocolate, and offer an amazing aftertaste. And given how well these wines age, you can enjoy a true masterpiece at your table.
In the mood for seafood pasta? It’s always a great choice, given the plentiful seafood options in Italy. Foods such as shrimp, mussels, oysters, calamari, crabs, and lobsters are both delicious and incredibly healthy. Try Spaghetti al Tonno (Spaghetti with tuna) or Spaghetti Marinara. The sauces for these pasta dishes already contain white wine, so it’s only natural to enjoy them with the same drink. You can opt for Chardonnay or a dry Sauvignon blanc, but the best option is to try a white brut. The unusual combination of pasta and sparkling wine will accentuate the multitude of flavors.
Sauvignon blanc from Veneto, Lombardy, and Friuli has a beautiful straw color and an elegant aroma of tropical fruit with vanilla notes. Flavor variations can also include notes of gooseberry, lychee, peach, spring flowers, and medicinal herbs. Wine made from this ancient grape variety offers a pleasant aftertaste and pairs well with seafood.
Interestingly enough, wine made from Sauvignon blanc is often described as fresh and crisp, playing with different notes and flavors. And sparkling brut wines have the same qualities. It’s also a fantastic companion for pasta with seafood sauces. Light on sugar, brut is a sparkling wine with a distinct and fresh fruity flavor. This fine and elegant wine has a strong aroma, a rich bouquet, and a delicate flavor. It’s also significant that brut has less alcohol content than classic champagne and won’t cause stomach issues thanks to the lack of fermentation. Note that brut needs to be served cold (6–8 °С maximum) in special flutes.
As an experiment and a way to get to know Italian wines a little better, you can also try seafood pasta with Vermentino. It’s a full-bodied wine with a strong Vermentino grape flavor that pairs amazingly with seafood. Wines made with these grapes are known for their butteriness and distinct notes of hawthorn, ripe pear, pineapple, and spices. Vermentino from Italian Liguria can be dry and dessert, one-grape and blended—but you should always go for young and fresh wines.
Pasta with Mushrooms
If you go for pasta with mushroom sauce, you must pair it with wine from Sangiovese. Sangiovese supposedly means ‘the blood of Jupiter’—the most powerful ancient Roman god. It is the best wine to highlight the tenderness and aroma of mushroom sauce. Now is the age of super–Tuscan wines that combine Sangiovese with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz.
Sangiovese truly is the favorite grape of Italian winemakers. It’s an autochthonous grape variety that grows in 16 out of 20 regions in the country. Its flexible and robust grapes adapt to the environment and can easily change the shape of their leaves and the size of their grape clusters and berries. The only thing that remains unaltered is the bright and distinct character of wines made from Sangiovese. These wines are always well-structured, noticeably acidic, and rich in tannins and have good aging potential.
They have a deep violet-ruby color, and their aroma includes notes of cherry, blackberry, plum, blueberry, violets, herbs, and intriguing spices. A glass of Sangiovese is filled with rich notes of coffee, chocolate, liquorice, and tobacco leaf and has a dry and fruity aftertaste. Also bear in mind that wines made with Sangiovese Grosso clones are considered to be of a higher class that those made with Sangiovese Piccolo. It is recommended to serve this wine at 16–18 °С.
Pasta with Tomato Sauce
Ever since the Old World was introduced to the unusual «love apple» from America, tomatoes have been a key ingredient in Italian pizzas and pastas with tomato sauce, such as Spaghetti Napoli. Of course, such a dish demands a special approach—it’s best served with the jewel of Italian winemaking, Chianti. This wine can properly highlight the rich flavor of the tomato sauce without getting lost in the background, and actually emphasizes the overall flavor of the dish. We once again turn to Tuscany and Sangiovese.
There are legal requirements to ensure that this wine uses no less than 70%–85% native Italian Sangiovese, which makes it a delicate and wonderful pairing for foods. Chianti’s thousand-year history, ancient technologies that have remained unaltered for decades or even centuries, the unique Tuscan climate—these are all guaranteed by the quality mark on each bottle of Chianti Classico DOCG: a black rooster in a circle. These wines are of controlled origin. If you are lucky enough to experience genius loci—the spirit of the place where the grapes grew—you will get a chance to truly appreciate the beauty and the charm of this wine.
The authentic and noble Chianti presents notes of blackberry and plum, and its pleasant acidity complements its liveliness. The flavor can resemble pure floral honey and freshly baked rural bread. This kind of Chianti is easy to drink and very elegant.
You can, of course, try alternative versions of this wine produced with slight changes in the original technology and using other grape varieties–over 3 million boxes of Chianti are produced every year. But we recommend getting back to the fundamentals of Italian winemaking so that you can enjoy delicious pasta and the wine accompanying it.
When served, Chianti should be «the temperature of the wine cellar»—that is, the temperature it was stored at (16–18 degrees on average).
The rooster appears on bottles of Chianti as a sign of respect from Florentines toward the bird. Legend tells of a conflict over disputed land, in which both parties agreed to send a horseman from their respective cities at the rooster’s first crow. The place where they met would serve as the dividing line. The restless Florentine rooster woke his horseman 20 minutes earlier than the rooster from Siena woke his. That’s how Florence ended up with a large chunk of land and decided to immortalize its gratitude to the bird.
Pasta with Vegetable Sauce
If you choose a light vegetarian pasta dish with a vegetable sauce, there is no need to make it any heavier with strong, full-bodied wines. Rose Italian wines pair perfectly with various vegetable pasta recipes. Such wines have no more than 1% sugar and 9%–13% alcohol. And while some people call such wines «intermediate,» the right rose wine can provide the best of both worlds.
Italians truly enjoy making rose wines, both from international grape varieties (Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon) and autochthonous grapes (Aglianico, Nerello mascalese, Corvina, Montepulciano, Aleatico), maturing them both in metal tanks and oak barrels. A variety of Italian regions work with such wines—Lombardy, Sicily, Tuscany, Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige, etc.
They come in a variety of shades (from light pink to darker, cherry tones) and have plenty of fine aromas (cherry, rose petals, raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, herbs, etc.). Rose Italian wines give you an opportunity to enjoy the mild and balanced flavor of strawberries, tropical fruit, citrus fruit, and spices. Also notable is the wines’ long and elegant aftertaste of freshness, with lemon and acacia notes.
And given that rose wines are low in calories (only 69 kcal per 100 mL), pairing them with vegetable pasta dishes results in a healthy dish. Make sure that rose wines are served at 8–10 °С.
Pasta with Garlic Sauce
We all need a little spice sometimes. Don’t hold back—treat yourself to Italian pasta with garlic sauce (e.g., Spaghetti Aglio e Olio). Garlic sauce can contain a variety of products, such as shrimp, cheese, and olives, but garlic is the star of the dish. And finding the right wine to complement such a dish is quite the challenge.
But another favorite of Italian winemakers is up to the task: Pinot grigio, the Italian version of Pinot noir. The story of these grapes is also that of the triumph of modern technology. Only at the end of the last century did winemakers realize that by controlling the temperature, they could turn these grapes into a light, toned wine with notes of honey and flowers.
Unlike wines from other countries made with fairly difficult and unstable Pinot grigio, the Italian wine is a guaranteed delight for the taste buds. Italians are masters of making wine from this grape variety. You have a choice of more mineral or fruity and dry variants of Pinot grigio. The former option comes from the north of Italy and is more acidic and very refreshing, with slight fruity notes. Fruity Pinot grigio boasts a rich flavor with notes of lemon, yellow apples, white peach, and very low acidity levels.
Rose Pinot grigio from Friuli also deserves special attention. It has a beautiful strawberry shade thanks to longer infusion on the seeds and skins. This wine offers good acidity levels and notes of raspberry, sweet cherry, dried cranberries, blackberry, and old leather.
The easy character of Pinot grigio makes it a refreshing way to quench one’s thirst. Paired with garlic pasta, it makes for a balanced and very pleasurable meal. Serve the wine cool, at around 7 °С.
It’s time for the most prominent and classic Italian dish—pasta with pesto sauce. Many consider the sauce great for good reason. Only 4–5 sauces fall under the same category. The Genoese created a dish that is not only healthy and natural but also quite affordable. A chef need only grind up a few products—such as basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmigiano, and olive oil. Sicilians might add tomatoes and almonds to their pesto sauce, but this is considered incorrect in Liguria.
This sauce requires more culinary alchemy than any other as Pesto alla Genovese traditionally needs to be ground in a marble mortar. The use of any metal objects is strictly prohibited, so the grinding process can take over an hour. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself at the pesto-making championship in Liguria, you’ll not only get to witness this wonderful process in action but can also sample the green perfection that is the pride of old Genoa.
Such an amazing dish does, of course, demand an equally amazing wine. Our top recommendation is the beautiful Merlot with its spicy notes. And not just any Merlot—Bianco di Merlot from the north of Italy, near the Italian-speaking Ticino region of Switzerland. This true masterpiece of winemaking—a white wine made with red grapes—is possible due to the grape juice being separated from the pomace very quickly, so that the wine does not have enough time to gain color. It has delicate tones of wild cherry and other red berries.
We recommend considering Trevini Primo Vendemmia—a white Merlot made by Trevini Primo in Piedmont. Other good options include Palafreno and Podere Del Paradiso Lo Cha Bianco, both from Tuscany. These straw-colored wines are fresh, with fruity aromas, elegant mineral content, notes of spice in their flavor and alcohol content of 13%–14%.
You can also opt for more classic versions of traditional red Merlot, with its unique, rounded, and silky tones. Italian regions such as Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Lazio, Sicily, and Piedmont create amazing blends from these grapes. And Italian monovarietal wines from Merlot are a whole other story in themselves, worthy of the highest praise and dedicated in-depth study.
At any rate, we can all agree that Italians have managed to convert almost the entire world to their culinary religion. No matter where you are, you can find Italian restaurants serving world-famous pasta dishes. And if you know how to pair them with the right wine, you are guaranteed to not only satisfy your appetite but to gain the true satisfaction of better understanding this unique country. Experience, however, is the best teacher. Try things, learn things, and experiment. Make mistakes and find your own truth.