In Rome it has been a very strange winter. The weather has been either warm but with torrential rains or sunny but blisteringly cold (full disclosure: I consider everything below 45 degrees “freezing”). Sometimes the two extremes even occur on the same day. Certain things in Italy though are felt more strongly than the weather, and just like the condominium-controlled thermostats that stubbornly pump out hot air even if it’s unseasonably warm or leave you shivering if the cold comes too soon, in winter we stick to certain foods, no matter the vagaries of nature. This means of course an opportunity to explore both new and favorite wine and food pairings.
The first thing that comes to mind this time of year is comfort food. With my beachwear packed away for the next few months, it seems easier to indulge. Think fried appetizers, sformatini of cheese and seasonal ingredients such as mushrooms or pumpkin, rich, hearty soups and stews, intense cheeses, slow-cooked meat, and of course desserts. Rich food often brings red wine to mind, but remember that there is a place for white at the winter table as well. For the classic Roman fritto misto of vegetables, for example, look for a white wine with bright acidity such as a Verdicchio di Castelli di Jesi to cleanse your palate. If, on the other hand, a plate of salty, cured meats is your winter treat, a white or a red would work just fine. With more delicate cured pork such as mortadella or prosciutto a crisp, fruity white like Friulano from Friuli or a Pinot Bianco from Alto Adige cuts through the salt and fat but does not overwhelm. Salame of pork or wild boar or finocchiona (pork cured with fennel seed) do well with reds, as long as they are not too tannic or too oaky, and have lot of fruit. Rosès such as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Cerasuolo also work beautifully. If you have an assortment of salumi, don’t worry too much about which color to choose, any of the above whites or reds should complement without overwhelming any one type too much. Of course you could choose a different wine for each distinct type of meat but it then it would be rather difficult to carry on to the next course!
Please also remember that wine and food pairing should not be an exact science, but rather should be fun and flexible. Luckily the holidays also means a chance to see friends and family, and a dining with a group gives you the chance to try different types of wines and see what works best to your taste (with less damage to the wallet and the liver).
For vegetable appetizers and sides soft whites tend to work best. Artichokes, which are just coming into season, are famous for clashing with wine. Prepared in Rome,however, they defy all convention and pair beautifully with the local white wines, especially Frascati and Marino. Rich cheese or mushroom flans would pair well with smooth reds like Teroldego Rotaliano or Lagrein, while those with pumpkin or other vegetables would do better with an aromatic white like a Sauvignon from Friuli.
First courses this time of year focus on hearty soups and rich pasta dishes. For the classic pasta and legume combinations such as pasta e fagioli, a soft, fruity red works best. Cerasuolo di Vittoria would work just fine. Heavier first courses like pasta with meat or cheese sauces, require a bit more intensity in their wines, but not as much as the wine needed for a second course. Sangiovese di Romagna or a Barbera from Piedmont come to mind, or for something different, try a fizzy red such as Lambrusco from Emilia Romagna. The acidity and the effervescence will create that perfect pairing in which the wine makes you want to take another bite of food, and the food inspires you to reach for your glass of wine. Polenta is also common this time of year, served in many different ways. Think of polenta as a vehicle, like pasta or rice, and base the pairing more on the condiment served with it. Polenta on its own pairs nicely with a medium-bodied red that is not too tannic, like Valpolicella. One of my favorite first-course indulgences this time of year, is fondue. It might not seem Italian at first but in the northern regions it is quite common. Fontina is used in Piedmont, and when white truffles (in season in winter) are shaved on top, there is nothing more sinfully delicious. Sparkling wine or acidic whites would cut through all that fat, but the easiest food pairing tip is to do as the locals do. In this case, follow tradition and pair the earthy depth of a nebbiolo-based wine to draw out the complex notes of the truffle, with enough tannin to stand up to this hearty dish. Look for Nebbiolo delle Langhe, Ghemme or Gattinara.
For wintry second courses, roasts and stews are particularly appealing. If a meat is cooked in red wine, simply serve the same wine at the table (remember there is nothing wrong with cooking with a less-expensive version). For roast game, Taurasi, Cannonau di Sardegna, or other big, tannic reds with wild flavors work well. Pork and lamb pair nicely with Pinto Nero from Alto Adige, while hearty beef dishes are classically paired with Brunello di Montalcino or Barolo.
For desserts, the important thing to remember is to keep your wine sweeter than the dish. Panettone is ubiquitous this time of year, and whereas it is usually paired with Champagne more out of a sense of celebration than a successful pairing, it fares better with Moscato d’Asti or other light, sweet wines from the moscato bianco grape. Apple and pear tarts do well with Picolit from Friuli or other fruity and floral sweet wines. For rich chocolate desserts, sweet red wines manage to hold their own. Look for Recioto della Valpolicella or Passito di Sagrantino. For those lacking a sweet tooth, these wines are also the perfect foil to strong and blue cheeses.
For the ultimate jolt of winter warmth, end your meal with a glass of grappa. Similar to brandy but made from wine as opposed to grapes, the quality ranges from the lighter-fluid variety to being on par with fine Cognac. Try a grappa barricata, which gets its amber hue and smoky notes from time in oak. Then tell yourself it will help you burn off all that winter fare.