For ages I had been reading and hearing about how it is impossible to find a real wine-food pairing that works with pizza. Not every expert agrees with that, some even coming up with extensive pizza-wine pairing lists,but could it really be true? Does my favourite food taste better without wine than with, an heresy for any food-loving Italian? The joint WBW/IMBB Fabulous Favourites Festival was just screaming for me to pick up the chance and do some food-wine pairing experimenting.
Want to know what came out? Continue below!
Originally, to keep the principle of pairing local wines and foods, I wanted to test a group of wines from Campania together with pizza. Unfortunately, while finding a decent Fiano D'Avellino or Greco di Tufo might have been easy, the same could not be said about Asprinio d'Aversa, young Per'e Palummo, sparkling red Gragnano and their likes. I will probably try this wine-pizza experiments again next time I fly to Naples, but to meet the event's deadline I had to improvise. The final group was made up of five wines plus... a lager beer, just for comparison's sake: two were wines often quoted as good matches to pizza, Rosé and Chianti, a light red somewhat between the two, and German white (out of curiosity mainly) and a German sparkling Riesling, as suggested by a local friend who found the pairing with pizza a winner.
2003 Riesling trocken Sekt "Von der Henne", Naumburger. This sekt (sparkling) Riesling is produced in the nearby Saale Unstrut wine region. Although Riesling production is far from the excellence of other German areas, the local sparkling wines are simple, yet pleasant and very drinkable. The relatively young wine is produced with the classical Champenois method with the remuage step done by hand: it is produced in semi-dry, dry and brut versions. This dry 2003 has a quite fine and persistent perlage. The aroma is initially marked by yeasts and white fruit, followed by citrus notes and a hint of minerality and balsamic herbs. Medium bodied, with the acidity and residual sugar balancing off nicely.
2004 Saale Unstrut Müller Thurgau, Naumburger. I must admit I am not the greatest of Müller Thurgau fans, even in its most successful expressions. Nonetheless, being always ready to give second, or more likely in this case, fiftieth chances, I picked this dry white produced, as the sparkling Riesling above, from Naumburger. Very pale straw colour with greenish tinge, typical aromatic Müller Thurgau nose and a somewhat this body, lacking spark. Although Müller Thurgau usually has a lower acidity compared to other German whites, this still had plenty: not too promising as a match for pizza and its tomato sauce.
2003 Alezio Rosato, Rosa del Golfo. This rosé from Apulia is probably my favourite rosé ever. It is usually drunk in the year following the vintage, and then it delights with an intriguing nose of red fruits, rose, herbs and maybe a hint of liquorice or saffron, and the warmth a southern Italian wine should have without lacking freshness. Plus it is a great match with vegetable based dishes, simple tomato based pastas and... you, guessed it, pizza. Following the suggestions of the producer of the wine I had decided to leave this in my cellar for another year (which according to him, brings out the best of the wine) and then, as it happens, forgot about it. A third age of ripening made the wine maybe less complex but not less intriguing. From the coral color to the still vivid taste, this rosé has aged well. The nose aroma is what changed most: at first the feeling is that of smelling a strawberry tart, with custard and vanilla accompanying the fruit, then slowly cherries and Mediterranean herbs become more evident.
The fourth wine should have been a St.Magdalener fro Alto Adige, which was, unfortunately, corked. Shit happens. I actually had good hopes for this with pizza: maybe another time.
Last a decent 2003 Chianti Classico Geografico. Not one of those super Chianti bottles from the top of the range maybe, but my usual choice for a good cheapish Chianti Classico option which has all the classic character of the wine: ruby to purple colour; nose of amarena cherries, liquorice, plus lightly floral and mineral notes; fresh, with medium tannins, and a nice structure. I couldn't really imagine this pairing all to well with pizza, but since all the experts from Larousse to Italian texts seem to give Chianti as best choice for pizza, it was worth a try.
As I mentioned above, we also had a simple Lager produced in the region around Jena. A nice classic example of the kind.
The Pizzas and the pairings
Recreating traditional Neapolitan pizza at home is impossible, yet with a few tricks one can get close to it. The dough for all the pizzas above was made using a biga pre-ferment, had almost 70% hydration and 12 hours total rising time (8 for the first rise, 4 for the final one after scaling). To stick with tradition I used DOP San Marzano tomatoes from the Agro Nocerino Sarnese and DOP Mozzarella di Bufala Campana.
FIrst up was Margherita. The classical tomato, mozzarella and basil topping, proved as the most difficult to pair. The Müller Thurgau aroma completely covered it and the Chianti's acid and tannins clashing with the tomato sauce of the pizza. The sparkling Riesling was better, with the little sugar giving a hand, but still something was missing and the flavours courted each other but did not marry together. The winner was definitely the Rosa del Golfo, giving a balanced match, with the pizza only slightly more in evidence than the wine.
The situation did not dramatically change with the next pizza topped with cherry tomatoes, pan-grilled zucchini and smoked scamorza. The Müller Thurgau was once more disappointing, and we decided to drop it for the next two pizzas; the Chianti slightly better, but not there yet. The Rosa del Golfo worked fine, but the sparkling Riesling was even better in matching the smoky aroma of the cheese and the caramelized zucchini.
Pizza with cremini mashrooms, Mantuan sausage and mozzarella , with its richer topping, clearly needed a wine with more body, and here the Chianti was top of the pops with those tannins helpful in balancing the rich and fatty sausage. The Rosa del Golfo, though somewhat overpowered, still managed to hold its ground, while the sparkling Riesling clashed with both sausage and mushrooms.
The Neapolitan style clazone (filled with ricotta, mozzarella, salame Napoletano and a good sprinkling of pepper) was a surprise: it matched quite nicely to all three wines... or maybe it was just us being completely pissed at this point. The result was slightly different with each, the Riesling highlighting the creamy ricotta, the Chianti the salame and the Rosa del Golfo balancing everything nicely, yet all three matches were pleasant.
So, to cut a long story short, whoever said that wine and pizza do not match was probably talking nonsense (or simply preferred beer with his pizza). I will agree that it is not easy to find a combination that really works, but I think that if you keep an eye on matching your toppings to your wine, you can come up with a succesful match. Rosé definitely makes the best all-around match, as long as it has enough structure and no excessive acid. And if you need an all around pizza, try calzone :-).
P.S. You might be wondering: what about the beer? Well, we only tested it with the margehrita and the sausage and mushrooms pizzas. It didn't really work too well with wither, especially the latter. The match with the margherita was ok, but it brought out the bitter hops aroma from the beer. Not with my pizza, thank you!