At The Table: Food and Red Wine Pairing

Food is just as important as wine in Italian culture, and Italian wines are nearly always made with food in mind. Whether you are buying a $8 Primitivo to accompany a pizza or seeking an extravagant purchase to accompany a decadent meal, Italian wines are supremely versatile. Matching food and wine is a very personal thing – although there are classic combinations that connoisseurs tend to enjoy, the preference of the individual who is choosing the wine will inevitably prevail. Knowing the basics, together with learning what you like, will get you a long way towards a wine and food combination that will delight and surprise you.

The standard cliché says that red wines go well with cheese, meat and other strong-flavoured dishes. In fact Italian red wines are so diverse and versatile that they can be paired with a much wider range of foods. © iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

Lighter red wines like Bardolino provide a wonderful alternative to white wine with Italy’s fine risottos and seafood – try chilling them a few degrees first. The delightful acidity of Bardolino or a young Chianti will cut through creamy sauces and provide a really interesting combination. Lighter wines can also taste great with pizza and can also work with dishes with a touch of spice that might dull the flavour of a more expensive wine.

Tomato-based sauces are very important in Italian cooking, and the tomato has always been notoriously difficult to match with wine. Its own acidity and strong flavour can dominate the palate and make it difficult to appreciate a delicate wine. But the Italian red grapes seem to have a natural affinity with the local cuisine, even to the extent that the subtle nuances of flavour in the wines compliment the food impeccably. The Sangiovese grape works wonderfully with both raw and cooked tomato dishes, with its notes of cherry, leather and tobacco providing a delightful balance.

Mid-weight wines like Primitivo, Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola are best paired with red meat and mince dishes, although they have tremendous versatility and can accompany hearty fish, like tuna, or white meat dishes with heavier sauces. Italy’s best reds are too complex and powerful for many foods – their weight and depth can mask its flavour. Your finest Barolo, Brunello and Amarone should be savoured for dishes as rich and complex as they are – save them for your very best meals in order to get the most enjoyment from them. Many of the most luxurious Northern Italian dishes are based on truffles, whose strong flavour requires only the finest Ghemme, Barbaresco or Barolo.

Slick, modern Italian reds made from foreign grapes like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon work well as an alternative to classic Bordeaux with fine French and British cooking. Their wonderful structure and finesse really shines through when presented next to exceptional cuisine, and every sip will reveal new flavours.

There are no hard and fast rules to enjoying wine with food – the Italian wine spectrum is so vast that the best way to learn about food and wine matching is to absorb yourself in the local culture and taste it for yourself. Just as there are good reasons why the Italians persevere with growing grapes that are not widely recognised, there are reasons why they also know exactly what wine to produce that will delight the local wine drinking population. So be creative, and don’t be afraid to experiment – stick to lighter wines with lighter meals, don’t waste your best Barolo on a mediocre meal, and you will soon develop a sense of what food and wine combinations work for you.

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