Learning how to pair wine with pasta, or food in general, can seem intimidating. But with pasta and Italian wines, it’s really hard to go wrong if you keep a few basic concepts in mind. There is also no right answer or perfect pairing when it comes to food and wine. Sensitivity to flavors and aromas varies from one person to the next. A favorite pairing for me may not be a favorite pairing for you.
The good news is that pasta dishes are often salty and acidic which are both well suited to wine. Hello, acidic tomatoes and salty parmesan cheese! So many wines can sit well with pasta that, to be honest, I’m pretty loose about how I choose a wine for dinner or when ordering at restaurants. I drink wines that I like or that I am curious about, but always keep the following few tips in mind.
Beware the oily fish.
Contrary to the oft-cited rule, red wine can be paired with fish and seafood. Although I still tend to default to whites or rosés when facing a fish-based pasta dish. Whites are safer as oily fish can produce an unpleasant taste when paired with red wines. Fish and seafood can also be high in umami or savory taste, the fifth taste along with salt, sweet, sour, and salty, which can clash with red wine, making the wine seem more bitter. Salt and acid can help counteract this effect, but I still tend to shy away from pairing red wine with fish, unless I know the wine and the dish well.
White wine is great with meat-based pasta dishes.
White wines and meat-based pasta dishes can be a great combination. A highly acidic wine can cut through salty, fatty, meaty pasta dishes and help clean your palate.
While some folks believe that meat can soften harsh red wines as the tannins in the wine bind to the meat proteins, I was taught that it’s probably the salt that has this effect. Salt and wine are good friends. Salt can make a wine seem more full bodied and less bitter and acidic.
Keep umami in mind.
Pasta dishes that are high in umami or savory flavors, such as pasta with asparagus can be a little tricky. Umami in food can increase the bitterness and acidity of a wine. Enough salt can help balance this out and it’s super helpful that Parmesan cheese is high in both umami and salt. Same for smoked meat. Bitter food can also make a wine taste more bitter too.
A high-tannin wine can often handle the increased bitterness when paired with umami-rich foods. A low-tannin red not so much. These wines may come across as bitter and unbalanced.
When in doubt, choose a simple, unoaked wine that is low in residual sugars.
Simple wines with simple flavor profiles are a safe bet. I often go this route when looking for an enjoyable dining experience. There are many wonderful wines that fall into this category. Of course, more complex wines, while risky, can be interesting. Complex flavor profiles in the wine or food, and wines that are oaked or high in tannins and high in acidity and alcohol can be problematic, but they can be delicious if the pairing works. The flavor intensity of the wine and the food should match. Although there are some notable exceptions such as intensely spicy food which does well with simple, unoaked whites. This brings us back to the default, when in doubt, choose a simple, unoaked wine.
Classic pairings and regional wines can be fun too.
Italian cooking is regional and the wines are too. Check out what region your pasta dish is from and pick a local wine to pair with it. This is how the dish was likely enjoyed by locals since way back when. I often order local wines, especially when traveling, as I invariably end up discovering something new or a winemaker I wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. Of course, many regions produce wine in a mix of styles so you should keep all the basic concepts in mind too.