This article appeared in the August 2007 edition of Connections Magazine (Ireland) A man walks into a restaurant just outside of Naples and barks out his order. “I want three things: a pepperoni pizza, a green salad and a bottle of red wine – Chianti.” This guy just wasn’t about to get sweet talked into some local flavor. No siree, especially since he had already perfected the formula. It’s a little like when tourists in Italy ask for the olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip their bread in; opting for traditions that never really existed locally but have become de rigueur in US Italian restaurants. Sorry no punch line here, our hero got his pizza with the classic pizza wine: a cheap Chianti. In wine parlance a pizza wine is a cheap red wine, usually Italian, with the assumption that a fine wine would be wasted on a pizza. Inexpensive Chianti, Barbera, Valpollicella and Montipulciano are all usual suspects. So what’s wrong with Chianti and pizza? Let’s go to Naples, the ancestral home of pizza, on a quest to find the perfect pizza wine. Do the clichés hold true? Is it Chianti or at least red and cheap? Flatbreads called pizzas were long popular as a peasant food in Italy with a form of them brought over by the ancient Greeks. But what we now consider pizza owes itself to a visit by Queen Margherita to Naples in 1889. She had developed a taste for the popular food and summoned a local pizza maker, Rafaelle Esposito to bake a selection for her and King Umberto I. Her favorite was topped with basil, mozzarella and tomato (representing the green, red and white of Italian flag) and soon after became known as Pizza Margherita. Her approval of the humble food increased its popularity, which obviously has grown well outside of Naples and Italy.
So what do most Neapolitans drink with their pizza? It’s probably not that shocking that the beverages of choice are beer and soda. Da Michele, Naples’ most popular Pizzeria, which is minimal in both its décor and menu -- serves only beer and soda in addition to Marinara and Margherita pizza. Their beverage of choice makes sense especially during the heat of the summer. OK then, does anyone in Naples drink wine with pizza? Yes, but it’s usually a local white. Fiano di Avellino and Falanghina were top suggestions. Interestingly enough, the Italian Trade Commission which has an extensive food and wine website - italianmade.com
- recommends Fiano di Avellino as a pairing for Pizza Margherita, which I could have learned without travelling to Italy. It was almost as if the Trade Commission made sure that the entire city is on message, which is no doubt unlikely. While Fiano di Avellino is one of the great white wines of Italy, the locally very popular Falanghina seems to be the most in keeping with the bold Neopolitan spirit. It throws its arms around you and gives you a big basket of fruit all the while maintaining its elegance and composure. It also has a great history, thrives in the local volcanic soil and was a favorite of Pliny the Elder. It isn’t widely exported but is definitely a wine to seek out, especially ones from Campi Flegrei, Sannio and Taburno. So is red wine wrong with Pizza? Not necessarily. Just because Neopolitans don’t usually pair the two doesn’t make it wrong. The local Aglianico and Piedrosso grapes make wines that actually pair superbly with pizza, with just the right amount of acidity to balance the tomato sauce.
Why not drink a good (or even great) wine with a pizza? The prevailing wisdom that pizza is peasant food that deserves a peasant wine should have been made irrelavent by Queen Margherita’s endorsement of it back in 1889. While peasant in origins, pizza is pretty much universally enjoyed regardless of how much or how little you have in the bank. In fact the simple elegance of a well made traditional pizza can complement the finest wines – I know of at least one group of tasters who regularly have pizza with some of the finest (and most expensive) wines in the world. Fiano di Avellino, one of the top local suggestions is not a cheap wine. The region was recently elevated to DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) becoming one of the 30 (out of 457) Italian appellations to achieve this status. Still, the wine is not expensive for the level of quality achieved by top producers such as Feudi San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Terradora and Vesevo. Remember a traditional pizza is mostly bready crust, which is fairly neutral and acts as a buffer for the creaminess of the mozzarella and the sweetness and acidity of the tomato sauce. Indeed, bread and crackers are palate-cleansing staples of many fine wine tastings.
So what is the perfect pizza wine?
Now that we know a good pizza wine is not necessarily red and not necessarily cheap, is there such a thing as a perfect one? Our visit to Naples didn’t exactly narrow down our search. Referring to the latest and greatest book on wine and food pairing, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg’s What to Drink with What to Eat
, also reveals a wide variety of options and opinions. Depending on the expert cited, it’s almost as if pizza can go with any wine, just remember a few pointers: 1. You can’t go wrong with a simple, classic, traditionally made pizza like a Margherita. 2. A more acidic wine works best with the tang of the tomato sauce so choose a wine with a little zip. 3. You’ll need a sweeter and fruiter wine to go with the sweeter sauce of fast food pizza like Domino’s or Pizza Hut – a dry wine will taste sour with these. 4. An extra cheese pizza will probably work better with a white wine than a red. 5. Avoid heavily oaked wines. 6. Spicy toppings like pepperoni work well with spicy Italian reds, but will still dominate the wine so go for something inexpensive in this case just like our American friend above. Pizza is simply an amazing food – even a bad pizza is pretty good. Too bad we can’t say the same thing about wine.
Some Campanian wines that are excellent with a Pizza Margherita2006 Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino
A fairly new producer, Feudi di San Gregorio was founded in 1986 and has been a driving force in increasing the overall quality of Campanian wines. Although their methods and winery are all ultra-modern, they use the ancient grapes that made Campanian wines a favorite with the Romans. OK, they also grow a little Merlot for a couple of their top wines; a decision that seems to have made more sense in the 1990’s when Merlot was the it grape. Their Fiano di Avellino is an excellent example of how good this wine can be: very aromatic with a strong perfume of floral, citrus and frangipan, adding apple on the palate and finishing with the trademark pleasantly bitter almond. 2006 Ocone Falanghina del Taburno
Of many good Falanghinas, the Ocone stands out with beautiful aromas of melon, apricot and pineapple. It’s fairly rich with great acidity so it could probably stand up to a double cheese pizza, especially Buffalo mozzarella, a Camapnian specialty. Characteristic with its high quality it finishes long and elegant as well. This wine is a true bargain – if you see one in a shop, don’t hesitate to snap it up. 2006 Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco
Lacryma Christi literally means the “tears of Christ” which may seem a little heavy for your average pizza party. That it’s made from the indigenous Coda di Volpe (“tail of the wolf”) grape doesn’t seem to add much levity either. The wine, however, is light and refreshing and made by the oldest and most traditional producers in Campania. Mastorberardino was founded in 1878 and has been a legendary example of how excellent wine could be made with ancient varieties. There’s also something refreshingly old school about this wine, restrained lemon and grapefruit peel aromas with a nicely bitter almond finish. 2005 Villa Matilde Terre Cerase 2005 Rosato
Since we’ve discovered how well white wines work with pizza, why not a rosé? There’s something fun about rosé that goes with the fun of pizza. Hey wait, matching fun? What about the flavours? OK, they too go together well. Villa Matilde, one of the region’s top producers, makes this refreshingly light (12.5% alcohol) wine that has a wonderful lightly herbal, lightly strawberry notes that somehow work perfectly with pizza. 2005 Terredora Aglianico Campania
The two brothers that controlled Mastroberardino split their enterprise in 1978, with one half becoming Terredora. They continue in the tradition of making fine wines out of the ancient grape varieties, Fiano, Greco and Aglianico that made Mastroberardino legendary. This wine is an easy drinking and casual version of Aglianico. Great aromatics with spicy black fruits and undertones of tar on the palate, it’s a very enjoyable wine. Yes, it’s still alright to have red wine with pizza. 2000 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi
Radici is the most famous wine in Campania. It’s also one of the main reasons that the Taurasi appellation was elevated to DOCG status in 1993. Like the Phoenix that rises from the ashes, it was first made in 1986 after the devastating earthquake of 1980 in a contemporary style symbolic of the rebirth of Mastroberardino. The 2000 is just now ready to drink with an amazingly aromatic bouquet of black licorice, black cherry, cedar cigar box and smoky tar notes. It’s fairly high acidity makes it surprisingly refreshing and an excellent food wine. It’s an outstanding world class wine and perhaps the ultimate pizza wine. *fiasco
1. a complete and ignominious failure. 2. a round-bottomed glass flask for wine, esp. Chianti, fitted with a woven, protective raffia basket that also enables the bottle to stand upright. (definition from Dictionary.com
Amazing Pizza Facts
Americans eat approximately 100 acres of pizza EACH DAY, or about 350 slices per second. Pizza is a $30+ BILLION per year industry. There are approximately 69,000 pizzerias in the United States. Approximately 3 BILLION pizzas are sold in the U.S. each year. (Source: Blumenfeld and Associates) 93% of Americans eat AT LEAST one pizza per month. (Source: Bolla Wines.) Each man, woman and child in America eats and average of 46 slices, (23 pounds), of pizza per year. (Source: Packaged Facts, New York.) Pepperoni is by far America's favorite topping, (36% of all pizza orders). Approximately 251,770,000 pounds of pepperoni are consumed on pizzas annually. Other popular pizza toppings are mushrooms, extra cheese, sausage, green pepper and onions. Gourmet toppings are gaining ground in some areas of the country such as chicken, oysters, crayfish, dandelions, sprouts, eggplant, Cajun shrimp, artichoke hearts and tuna. More recent trends include game meats such as venison, duck and Canadian bacon. US pizza makers have turned breakfast into a pizza-eating opportunity by adapting peanut butter & jelly, and, bacon & egg toppings to their pizzas. 62% of Americans prefer meat toppings on their pizza, while 38% prefer vegetarian toppings. (Source: Bolla Wines.)
With all the cheese, acidic tomato sauce, and, maybe, rich protein toppings, the wine has to have some kind of guts: either a good cutting edge of acidity or enough fruit/tannin stuffing to stand up to the food pyramid onslaught. My top pick is CA zinfandel, followed by NZ sauvignon blanc.