The Best Pizza Wine? Not the One You Think – WSJ By Lettie Teague

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The Best Pizza Wine? Not the One You Think
Too often, the wine we drink with pizza is an afterthought. Lettie Teague and her intrepid tasters spent a week rigorously eating pies and drinking potential pairings. Their recommendations might surprise you.

By Lettie Teague
Sept. 28, 2017 1:07 p.m. ET
For all the years I’ve spent consuming pizza and wine, I’ve rarely pondered what combination works best. A pizza wine was whatever bottle I happened to have on hand. And yet with so many serious pizza joints popping up around the country in recent years, I wondered if pizza and wine pairing warranted a second look.

Of course “pizza” can mean many things: white or red, Sicilian- or Chicago-style, not to mention all the possible toppings. How could the same wine that goes with a mushroom pizza pair with, say, a clam pie? Yet when I talked to food and wine professionals as well as passionate pizza amateurs, only one said he chose his wine according to type of pie. The thinking more often factored in season and mood, or the price of the pizza. (The cheaper the pizza, the cheaper the wine.) And the choice was invariably red.

Glenn Vogt, managing partner and owner of RiverMarket Bar and Kitchen, a restaurant with its own wood-fired pizza oven in Tarrytown, N.Y., bases his choice on geography. “I’ve always fallen back on the idea that you drink wines of place,” he said. Since pizza originated in Naples, Italy, Mr. Vogt often opts to drink a (red) wine from the same region (Campania). That means “a great Aglianico,” though he’s also a fan of Chianti with pizza. Then again, he also drinks white Burgundy with pizza, but not because of a particular pairing philosophy. “I just love white Burgundy,” he said.

Kyle Kelly, wine director of Al Forno in Providence, R.I., famed for its pizza, is also a fan of Chianti as a pairing, but chooses the “straightforward, traditional” kind, not a Chianti with any additional Cabernet or Syrah. For Marc Malnati, proprietor of famed Chicago deep-dish chain Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, the wine of choice is Cabernet Sauvignon, especially Caymus Vineyards Cabernet. Isn’t that a rather rich wine? I asked. “I think the sweetness can offset the acidity of the tomatoes,” Mr. Malnati replied.

Some wine professionals admitted they don’t drink wine with pizza at all. “Since I work in wine, I drink beer with pizza. It’s a relaxation thing,” said Sara Sparks, sales manager of Astor Wines & Spirits in New York. Ms. Sparks added that choosing beer is often an act of self-defense. “A lot of pizza places have bad wine lists,” she said. When Mario Carlino, proprietor of Divina Ristorante in Caldwell, N.J., owned a pizzeria for 10 years, he drank beer with his pizza. But recently he switched to wine because beer is “too filling.” Now he favors a “crispy white” from Italy with pizza.

When I put together a group of possible pizza wines to taste, I included an equal number of whites and reds. For reasons both budgetary and cultural, I focused specifically on Italian wines, though I also included a sparkling rosé from France because I happened to have it on hand, as well as a Tempranillo and a Malbec, at the behest of a wine store salesman who insisted they were “perfect pizza wines.”

I found friends willing to eat lots of pizzas and taste multiple wines over the course of a week. We had mushroom and pepperoni, sausage and Sicilian, white and red pies—a different mix each night—but each time we had a pizza margarita on hand as the “control pie.”
1. 2016 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Bianco, $22 An old-vine field blend of various Sicilian white grapes made by Etna maestro Marco de Grazia, the Etna Bianco is a perfect bianco pizza partner—though it does pretty well by a pizza rosso as well.
2. 2016 Il Poggio di Gavi, $16 This vibrant white from the Cortese grape is made in the Rovereto zone of the Piedmont. Round, medium-bodied, it seems to gain in richness with pizza. Particularly good with a mushroom-sausage pie.
3. 2014 Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco, $20 The bright and juicy character of this lively red Sangiovese-dominant blend from superstar Umbrian producer Arnaldo-Caprai makes it ideal for just about any type of pie, especially a classic pizza margarita.
4. 2015 Produttori di Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo, $17 Aromas of red fruit and earth and a soft, approachable character plus lively acidity make this basic Nebbiolo from the famed Barbaresco cooperative in Piedmont a dynamic pizza match.
5. 2016 Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco, $16 For those who think the wine should match the food’s place of origin, this earthy, medium-bodied white with a mineral edge from a venerable Campania producer fits the bill.
The Tempranillo and the Malbec the salesman noted as prime pizza partners were among the first wines we tasted. Although everyone loved the rich and concentrated 2014 Pesquera Ribera del Duero Tinto ($33), we agreed it was too complex, “too interesting” for pizza. The 2015 La Posta Pizzella Malbec ($15) from Mendoza, Argentina, was too jammy and sweet, notwithstanding the serendipity of the Pizzella name.

Though produced by two of my favorite Chianti producers, the two Chiantis were a surprisingly poor match. The 2015 Fattoria di Fèlsina Berardenga Chianti Classico ($17) and the 2015 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico ($17) turned out to be too high in acidity and lacking in fruit to withstand the acidity of the tomato sauce. The 2014 Arnaldo-Caprai Montefalco Rosso, a Sangiovese-Sagrantino-Merlot blend from Umbria, proved a much better match because it was more juicy and bright, and at $20 a bottle also fit my pizza price model.

The two Dolcettos we tried were largely forgettable—a bit too simple and light—though a few other Piedmont wines worked quite well. The 2015 Vietti Tre Vigne Barbera d’Alba ($17) was quite flexible and pairable thanks to a lively acidity and bright berry fruit. An earthy 2015 Produttori di Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo ($17) proved a perfect match to the mushroom pizza, though it was pretty flat with the Sicilian and the pepperoni. Like the Tempranillo, it was much better by itself, as was a Barbaresco from the same winery, the 2013 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco ($33) that I’d splurged on to see if a more complex wine might be an even better fit with the pizza. It was not, but it was quite delicious, with soft tannins and opulent aromas of dark fruit and earth.

‘Surprisingly, the white wines were a success, almost regardless of grape or origin, or even type of pizza.’
Pizza was no friend to our Italian red sparkling, the snappy and dry 2015 Zanasi Lambrusco “La Grasparossa” ($13); it pretty much killed the fruit in the wine and made it taste tinny. But the Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace, a rosé sparkling wine from France, proved a surprise winner. It had fruit but also acidity and beerlike bubbles, though the cultural purists discounted it because it came from France.

Also surprisingly, the white wines were a success, almost regardless of grape or origin or even type of pizza. “This Gavi can go in all kinds of directions,” my friend Jane said of the 2016 Il Poggio di Gavi ($16), full bodied but marked by a firm minerality. Aromatic, luscious but well balanced, the 2016 Terredora di Paolo Falanghina ($16) from Campania proved Mr. Vogt’s point regarding wines from the region where pizza was born. And the 2016 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Bianco ($22), a field blend from Sicily, had a pleasing minerality that was a brisk counterpart to all the cheese.
Based on our findings, might pizzeria owners be compelled to rewrite their wine lists to include more Gavis, Falanghinas or even Pinot Grigios? Probably not. Diners seem to be as set in their ways when it comes to what they drink with pizza as they are on matters such as thin crust vs. thick. As my friend Rich said, “I drink red wine with pizza because I like red wine.” Should he wish to expand his options, he can consult the list above.

Email Lettie at wine@wsj.com.