Check almost any book or website on pairing ideas for Italian tomato sauce and the first recommendation is Chianti. But, to be honest, I have never been much impressed with the pairing. Tomatoes are a difficult ingredient to pair and although the pairing with Chianti is not awful it just isn’t as satisfying as other classical pairings such as Muscadet and raw oysters or beef and Cabernet Sauvignon.
In the best pairings, there is synergy between the wine and food. The wine enhances the flavors in the food and the food enhances the flavors in the wine—they interact with complexity yet neither the wine nor the food dominate. With Chianti when paired with pasta and gravy or a simple margherita pizza there is little interaction at all. The wine does its thing; the food remains unaffected. The wine refreshes the palate and both the wine and the food are enjoyable but they remain separate entities with different roles to play in the meal.
Lest this judgement depend on the peculiarities of a single recipe or wine, I tried a variety of Chianti Classico wines at various price points, from supermarket Gabbiano to Antinori’s Reserve bottlings, with the following dishes:
Pasta and Marinara sauce
Pasta with Marinara and sausage
Gnocchi with Pomodoro Sauce
Grilled Pizza Margherita
Roasted spaghetti squash with tomato sauce and cheese
These were all made from scratch with fresh ingredients. My conclusion never wavered. It was an acceptable but mute pairing, not worthy of high praise.
This got me thinking. Could so much pairing advice be wrong? Or are we confused about what it means to say a wine and a dish pair well?
Part of the problem is that “pair well” or “go together” can have a variety of meanings. Here is my list of the various meanings “pair well” can have:
1. The wine and the dish are from the same region and are traditionally eaten together so they put you in mind of that place.
2. The wine and the dish are of the same weight,such as a light bodied wine with a light meal.
3. The wine and the dish both fit the dining occasion because both are compatible with the weather, the atmosphere of the occasion (a celebration, a simple, casual get together, a fine dining experience, etc.), or because the wine and dish share an “atmosphere.”
4. The wine is refreshing and cleanses the palate making the food taste brighter and with more pop.
5 The wine and the dish have flavors that remain separate but don’t clash.
6. The wine and the dish have the same sweetness level or level of acidity.
7. The wine is used as a spice to flavor a dish made from ingredients with muted flavors such as a simple, un-sauced chicken dish served with Pinot Noir.
8. Balancing–The wine provides an interesting contrast with the food or corrects a deficiency in the dish like a crisp sparkling wine with fried chicken. Alternatively, the dish makes the wine taste more balanced as with a well-marbled steak absorbing the tannins of a Cabernet Sauvignon.
9. The dish and the wine share dominant flavors such as an herbal green goddess dressing with Sauvignon Blanc.
10. Synergy–The wine highlights or boosts particular flavors in a dish and vice versa.
11. Blending–The wine and the flavors of the dish blend into a third, irreducible flavor that is pleasing.
I’m not sure that this list is exhaustive. (Let me know if I missed something)
Where does Chianti and tomato sauce fit on this list? Most of the dishes above were from Italy if not Tuscany (1). And all worked well with the medium weight of Chianti (2). None of these dishes were highly refined or particularly subtle. They are hearty, informal dishes that work well with rusticity of Chianti (3).
Chianti’s high acidity makes it refreshing and a good palate cleanser and cuts the fattiness of cheese. (4)
But the key to the pairing is that Chianti’s high acidity stands up well to the acidity in tomatoes (6). In fact, none of the Chiantis disappeared or took a back seat to these dishes. It was just as assertive as the food in every case because they matched the weight and acidity.
Some Chiantis have a tomato paste quality that, if prominent enough, will match the flavors in the above dishes. (9) But typically it isn’t prominent enough to impress as a flavor match.
What the pairings of Chianti and tomatoes don’t provide are synergy (10) and blending (11). Yet, I think these are the “holy grail” of wine and food pairing. The most satisfying pairings achieve one of these. (But this is often a product of particular wines and particular dishes crafted to achieve this result)
So is Chianti a good match for tomato sauce? That depends on what you mean by “match.”
But the pairing is unlikely to be a superstar, although in the contexts in which we typically enjoy them it doesn’t have to be.