The Noble Writ: Pairing Pizza with Wine, via Piedmont

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Wait, it's pizza and beer, right? Not in my book. As someone who loves beer, pizza and wine to degrees that would probably embarrass most folks, I'm mystified how this generic "match" has become a ubiquitous populist myth.

What kind of beer? What kind of pizza? What kind of wine? These are areas rife with variations and passionately-held pedantic points of honor.

The most critical pizza component when deciding which beverage to pair is the sauce. Basically, any pie with a tomato-based sauce is going to work better with wine than beer. (Ditto for pesto sauces, too.) Thick crust, thin crust, double-crust, fresh mozzarella, whole-milk or part-skim mozzarella, Parmagiano-Reggiano or Provel: All are relatively irrelevant. The tomato sauce can be spicy, a bit sweet or as traditional as can be, but it's the key -- and it's a nightmare match for beer. Thankfully, the tomato is a great friend to fruity, acidic red wines.

click to enlarge A vineyard in the Piedmont region - User "cloud7," Wikimedia Commons
User "cloud7," Wikimedia Commons
A vineyard in the Piedmont region
My favorite pizza match is barbera from Italy. Barbera is not a particularly noble grape, but it has lots of fruit flavor, tons of acidity and almost no tannins. These qualities have made it vie with sangiovese (the defining grape of Chianti) as the most widely-planted red grape variety in Italy.

Most Italian barbera that you find on the shelves in this country comes from the Piedmont region, in the northwest corner of Italy, near Switzerland and France. There, barbera plays a useful -- but decidedly secondary -- role to nebbiolo, the great age-worthy grape that makes Barolo and Barbaresco.

Barbera is blue-collar, though some producers have tried to give it an upscale gloss by aging it in new oak barrels and applying all sorts of new winemaking techniques to make it richer, darker and more "serious." To my palate, barbera plus new oak makes one of the most vomitous misapplications of expensive dead trees to be inflicted on wine drinkers' palates. Fortunately, there is a strong correlation between new oak usage and price: If a barbera costs more than $20, there's a very good chance it's seen new oak.

Cheap barbera is also not usually worth the trouble, and anything that costs less than $10 should be sampled before buying in quantity. Poor barbera, usually the result of forcing the vines to produce too heavy a crop, is insipid but still packs an acidic wallop. However, without the fruit to balance it, the acidity is exaggerated, and the wine is hard to match with food and offers little pleasure.

click to enlarge The Noble Writ: Pairing Pizza with Wine, via Piedmont
Dave Nelson
The barbera sweet spot seems to be in the $12 to $18 range. Here, there is real richness to the fruit, giving it a velvety quality that I love. But unlike so many other fruity wines, barbera brings a mouth-watering acidity that slices through and keeps things lively. Babera's lack of tannin makes it ready to drink when it hits the shelf and even more food-friendly. When barbera is paired with a tomato-sauced pizza, the fruit supports and melds with the sweetness of the tomatoes, while the acidity helps cut through the richness of the cheese and toppings. When it works, it's a magical combination that makes both pizza and wine taste better.

2007 Kroara Barbera Piemeonte, Viticoltori Associati di Vinchio-Vaglio ($12, Grapevine Wines): Clear dark ruby. Rich plum and juicy ripe cherry dominate the nose. Medium-full in the mouth, with excellent intensity of fruit, cut with refreshing acidity. Really long, complex finish. This producer is a cooperative winery, and cooperatives can frequently produce dull, uninspiring wines, but this winery really nailed this one. It positively sang with an Italian sausage pie from La Pizza. Highly recommended and a great value.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.
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