Whether you are dining out, planning a romantic picnic, or preparing a special meal at home, when it comes to pairing Italian wines with foods, the universal rules of wine pairing remain unchanged.
While this article covers both white and red Italian wines, along with Italian food choices, the principles are exactly the same for ANY pairing of wines!
I’m teaching you the principles of wine pairing so you don’t have to memorize a long list of brands or recipes to know what wine goes with what food!
So read on, you’re going to love this!
Pairing Italian Wines with Food is Easy to Do!
Let’s be honest, it can be very daunting when trying to determine which wine to choose for your occasion if you’ve never understood the basic principles to wine pairing.
By understanding the basics of wine pairing, you will never have to wonder what’s the best white wine for this or that Italian food.
You WILL know what kind of wine goes the right Italian food.
Here are some tips, tricks (including some Italian words to help read labels), and examples common with Italian food choices whether for a holiday or planning an Italian picnic food menu.
Understand These Terms to Help Know what Wine Goes Best with Italian Dishes
Understand the basics and you’ll be able to always choose the best wine for the occasion. Let’s get started!
Light, Medium and Heavy (full body) Wines
As I mentioned, whether it’s Italian wine, French or other region, the rules don’t change.
To know which wine goes with Italian food, let’s talk about the “body”.
Wine can have a light body, a medium body, and a heavy body. You want to match lighter wines for lighter foods. Light foods are fish, cheese, crackers, salads, antipastos.
Likewise, pair heavier wines for heavier Italian foods. These are foods that you might say after a meal, “That was great but lays heavy”. For example, steak, beef dishes, and heavy pastas fit this category.
Then of course, you have your medium wine varieties for foods that fit somewhere in between light and heavy. Examples here are pasta with veggies, breaded chicken breasts, pasta alfredo with chicken, or a firm fish like salmon (white only). If in doubt go with these.
Dry vs Sweet
When a wine is described as Dry, it means it is not Sweet. The more the natural sugars in wine are fermented by the yeast to create the alcohol, the drier it is. That means less natural sugars are left and that’s what makes a wine either dry or not dry!
Remember – if it says Dry, it means it’s not sweet. Likewise, if it says it’s not a sweet wine, that means it’s a dry wine! Or if it’s “not dry”, it’s sweet! So when you ask for a wine that is dry, expect it to taste more bitter than sweet. If in doubt, go for a semi-dry… aka semi-sweet!
When to use White Wine vs. Red Wine
Both white and red wines can be produced to be light, medium or heavy. But that doesn’t mean a light red goes with a light food group – such as a mild tasting halibut fish.
If in doubt, here are the core basics.
- Fish goes with white, not red.
- Poultry usually goes with white, not red.
- Vegetables generally go with white, not red.
- Beef and red sauce pastas go with red, not white
- White or oil-based sauce pastas go with white, not red
To get more specific, remember that acidic wines goes with acidic foods. The most obvious acidic ingredient in Italian cooking would be tomatoes. So avoid red wines that say low acidity. Go with a medium acidity at minimum.
An Easy Way to Learn Wine Pairing Rules – Think of a Menu
Let’s put this into practice by envisioning an actual menu at an Italian restaurant. By breaking your options down by meal courses, the pieces will start to fall into place, and you’ll have an “ah ha!” moment!
A typical menu consists of Appetizers, Main Meals, Desserts, right?
Let’s take our core principles and apply them below. I’ve chosen some of the most common white and red wine varieties we normally find when eating out. This will help you choose a good red or white wine even if preparing your own Italian meal at home.
Once you know the principles, and what type of wine you want, you’ll narrow it down further by what you’re willing to spend, and if you still can’t decide… don’t be afraid to ask.
- Salads – Use a light, crisp and dry wine. White or Red. Ie Pinot Grigio for a white wine, and Sangiovese for red.
- Cheeses – Light wine. White or Red. White – Pinot Grigio. Red – Sangiovese or Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Breads – Light to medium wine. Same as salads or cheeses.
- Chicken (other poultry) – Medium white. Pino Grigio or Vermentino. Chicken Piccata is a classic recipe that goes great with white wine.
- Beef – Medium to Heavy Dry Red. Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon is perfect. Beef Roast is a great recipe too, especially for the holidays.
- Fish – the firmer and heavier the fish, the more bodied you want the white. But order white for fish always. An exception would be if you can order a Nero d’Avola, which is a Sicilian red wine that has a crisp flavor that can complement a hearty fish. Recipe idea: Shrimp and pasta.
- Pasta w/ Red sauce – Medium to Heavy Dry Red. Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon is perfect. Sangiovese too.
- Pasta with Oil or White Sauce – Medium White. Pinot Grigio. Dry or sweet.
- Pizza – same principles – red pizza use a red wine, white pizza use a white wine. 😊
- If you want a wine with dessert, order a sweet wine to complement the sweet dessert. Some people will order a Moscato to BE the dessert!
Don’t Forget to Consider Your Own Preference
If you’re not a wine enthusiast (if you are don’t read this paragraph), you may be the type that simply doesn’t like white wines at all. Or maybe you don’t like reds at all.
If it’s about personal preference between white and red, understand at least the rules for pairing light, medium and heavy wines with the right food groups and go from there. I rarely like a white wine, so understanding these rules have helped me know what reds will be appropriate for my Italian meals, even when cooking from home.
Here are Some Italian White Wines You’ll Find on Menus:
- Pinot Grigio – This is extremely popular as an Italian white wine. If in doubt, go with this. Typically on the dry side. You can always ask if the Pinot Grigio on the menu or in the store is a full bodied or light if it’s important.
- Moscato – this is generally a very sweet wine with low acidity (no tomatoes). With a little bit of sparkle. Goes great with cheeses, dessert, fruit. Not for heavy meals!
- Vermentino – this is light bodied. High acidity.
Usually there is More Selection of Red Wines:
- Sangiovese (grape) – light to medium body, very dry, high acid
- Cabernet Sauvignon (grape) full body, dry
- Chianti Classico (Chianti is a region, not a grape!) – but this wine is an Italian red wine and goes with a wide range of meals, so a good iconic, traditional red Italian wine.
- Merlot (grape) – medium to heavy body, dry
- Corvina (grape) – heavy, dry
- Barbera (grape) – light to medium body, dry
- Trebbiano (grape) – medium, dry (very common wine variety in Italy).
Let the Wine Label be your Pairing Guide!
Have you ever stood in front of a wall of wine bottles and found yourself realizing you have no clue how to read the labels?
Here are some cool tips for understanding naming conventions that will help remove some of the uncertainty when looking at Italian wine labels… but not all the time.
Labels usually consist of:
- Name of the Company
- The Region where the Winery is located
- Type of Wine (white, red, or grape variety)
- Who Produced and Bottled the Wine (winery name)
- Origin (Not all Italian wines are from Italy believe it or not. So if you want an Italian wine from Italy, make sure the origin says Product of Italy)
- Year it was bottled
What do the Words mean on an Italian Wine Bottle?
- D’, Di, Della. This word means “from”. The following word after this will be a region or location. Example: From – region is next. Ie Sangiovese from Chianti Classico, Tuscany Italy (wine.com)
- Rosso – Red
- Bianco – White
- Spumante – Sparkling
- Reserve – this means it has been aged longer than normal, thus producing a better quality wine for the aficionado.
Ask the Chef What is the Best Red or White Wine They Recommend
Don’t be shy! Beyond these basic rules of light, medium and heavy, white vs. red, and dry vs. sweet, never be ashamed or embarrassed to ask what a particular Italian white or red’s level of dryness and acidity is.
The reason for this is because different wineries have different methods of wine-making. Some may allow a longer fermentation period making a wine more dry, while other wineries may choose to leave some of the natural sweetness from the grapes. Same grape variety, but different methods.
Keep in mind too that sometimes wineries use a blend of grapes, where a Pinot Grigio for example could be 75% and the remaining 25% a blend to add a particular palette.
This is normal and unless you know all about that exact wine bottle, including year and method of wine-making, type of barrel, etc. from a producer, it’s totally acceptable to ask these questions. If you don’t trust the opinion of the waiter or waitress, ask them to ask the chef directly which wine he or she would recommend.
I hope these tips have helped you.
Understanding the basics of wine pairing is like the old saying, “You can feed a man for a day by giving him a fish. Teach a man to fish, and feed him for life.” In the same way, you can now more confidently know what wine pairs well with Italian food, as well as any type of food because the rules for pairing are always the same.