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Pizza Wine for Dummies
By Ed McCarthy
Apr 28, 2009
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Americans love pizza so much that we've made it our national food, along with hamburgers and hot dogs. I also happen to love pizza and enjoy it frequently. But I must drink wine with my pizza -- red wine, of course.  I cannot  understand the concept of beer, or even worse, soda, with pizza.  Red wine complements tomato-based pizzas so well!  It easily handles the acidity of the tomatoes and/or the sauce, and goes well with most other pizza toppings. I even enjoy red wine with pizza Bianca (sans tomatoes) although I guess an appropriate white wine might work here as well.

Pizza as we know it today, with tomatoes, had its origins in Naples in the 1700s; local residents started adding the new-fangled tomato, a gift from the Americas, to their flatbreads. The first open-air pizza stands also began in Naples during the 18th century.

The first restaurant  specializing in pizza in the U.S., Lombardi's, in downtown New York, opened in 1905 and it's still there. But it took World War II for pizza to really catch on in the U.S.  American GIs serving in Italy discovered this delicacy and brought the idea of pizza, plus a taste for wine, back with them when they returned. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, pizza started becoming generally available, first in the New York area, and then around the country.

A few times a year, some of my wine writing colleagues and I gather in a pizzeria in New York, one in which we're allowed to bring our own wine, and feast on various pizzas. One of the main topics of conversation, of course, is which wines go best with the pizza.  Over the years, I have formed some strong ideas on the best pizza wines, and I thought it would be a good idea (at least to me!) to publicly express my views on this important topic.

Not all red wines pair well with pizza (I'm talking only about typical tomato-based, Neapolitan-style pizzas in this column).  A few years ago, a California-based wine writer wrote about wines that go with pizza; the problem was that all the wines mentioned were California  wines!  I believe that most California wines do not pair well with pizza; they don't have the structure that pizza needs.  Most California reds are too fruity and too low in acidity to team up with pizza; also, many have strong oaky aromas and flavors.  In my experience, certain Italian red wines go best with pizza.

The one possible exception to my no-California  policy with pizza might be a few Cal-Ital reds.  In doing research for my California Wine For Dummies book, which publisher John Wiley has just released for sale, I discovered some real 'Italian-style' California red wines: lean, dry, not too fruity, and with enough bracing acidity to accompany pizza.  Five Cal-Ital 'Pizza reds' that come to mind are Boeger Barbera, Brutacao Dolcetto, Martin & Weyrich 'Il Vecchio' Nebbiolo, and Caparone's Aglianico and Sangiovese.

But for me, the best wines with pizza are Barbera and Dolcetto -- n that order -- from Piedmont, Italy.  Also very good are certain Tuscan Chianti wines, but not all of them, and some Valpolicellas from the Veneto region in Italy.

Light- to medium-bodied reds go best with pizza; full-bodied, powerful reds will overwhelm pizza's delicate flavors.  For the same reason, I prefer wines that have not been aged in new oak.  Such wines' oaky aromas and flavors will overpower pizza.  The ideal red wine with pizza has good acidity, is dry, not overly fruity, and leaves a clean taste on the palate.

Italian Barberas -- the ones that are not aged in new oak -- are the ideal pizza red because they have good acidity and are low in tannins.  These wines don't clash with pizza; they embrace it!  A bite of steaming hot pizza, melting with cheese, and a sip of Barbera. Heaven!

The two main types of Piedmontese Barberas that are available in the U.S. are Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti.  Generally, I prefer Barbera d'Asti of the two for pizza, because it is usually lighter-bodied and typically has better acidity. The less-expensive Italian Barberas, those that retail in the $15 to $25 price range, are the better choice to accompany pizza.  The $30 and up Barberas invariably are aged in oak; some of them might be fine wines, but they're not ideal with pizza.  Some of my favorite Piedmontese Barberas with pizza are the following:

Vietti Barbera d'Asti, 'Tre Vigne'
Marchesi di Gresy Barbera d'Asti
Giacomo Conterno Barbera d'Alba
Giuseppe Rinaldi Barbera d'Alba
Marcarini  Barbera d'Alba
Renato Ratti Barbera d'Alba
Cavallotto Barbera d'Alba, Bricco Boschis
Boroli Barbera d'Alba, 'Bricco 4 Fratelli'
Elvio Cogno Barbera d'Alba
Bartolo Mascarello Barbera d'Alba
Coppo Barbera d'Asti 'L'Avvocata'
Michele Chiarlo  Barbera d'Asti 'Le Orme'
Poderi Colla Barbera d'Alba
Pio Cesare Barbera d'Alba
Marchesi di Barolo Barbera del Monferrato 'Maraia'
Marchesi di Barolo Barbera d'Alba 'Ruvei'

I also love Italian Dolcettos (all of which come from Piedmont) with pizza. I place it second to Barbera only because Barberas have greater acidity and lower tannins than Dolcettos. Even though Dolcetto is also dry, it's typically leaner and less fruity than Barbera, which is a plus in its favor.  And Dolcetto is generally lower-priced than Barbera; there are practically no Dolcettos over $25.  The best region for Dolcetto is Dogliani, a town south of the Alba region. But most of the Dolcettos sold in the U.S. are Dolcetto d'Albas. Here are some of my favorite Dolcettos with pizza:

Chionetti Dolcetto di Dogliani 'San Luigi'
Luigi Einaudi  Dolcetto di Dogliani, especially 'Vigna Tecc'
Marcarini  Dolcetto d'Alba 'Boschi di Berri' (hard to find)
Marcarini  Dolcetto d'Alba 'Fontanazza'
Bruno Giacosa Dolcetto d'Alba, Falletto Vineyard
Luciano Sandrone Dolcetto d'Alba
Cavallotto Dolcetto d'Alba, Vigna Scot
G.D. Vajra Dolcetto d'Alba
Vietti Dolcetto d'Alba, 'Tre Vigne'
Marchesi di Gresy Dolcetto d'Alba
Boroli Dolcetto d'Alba, Madonna di Como
Poderi Colla Dolcetto d'Alba. Piano Balbo
Renato Ratti Dolcetto d'Alba
Elvio Cogno Dolcetto d'Alba
Marchesi di Barolo Dolcetto d'Alba, Madonna di Como

The top three on the above list of Dolcetto wines are particularly special. The currently available vintages of both Barbera and Dolcetto are fine; just avoid the 2003 vintage -- too warm for both wines.

Chianti also goes well with pizza, at least the ones that are not dominated by oaky aromas and flavors. Generally, I would not buy any of the expensive Chianti Classico Riservas as an accompaniment to pizza.  The less-expensive (retailing under $25) Chianti wines usually have little if any oak-aged flavors.  Even Tuscan wines simply labeled Sangiovese, not Chianti, and costing less than $15, can be fine with pizza.  The two best Chianti regions are Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina. Both 2004 and 2006, especially '04, are good Chianti vintages. Again, I would avoid the 2003s.

I also enjoy simple Valpolicella wines with pizza. Valpolicella is light-bodied and lively, and does not overwhelm the pizza.  As with Chianti and Barbera, I would not choose an expensive (over $25) Valpolicella; it will be too powerful, too tannic, and too oaky.  An under $20 Valpolicella from a recent  vintage, slightly chilled, would be delightful with pizza.  Avoid inexpensive Valpolicellas that are more than four years old.

Obviously, there are other suitable red wines to accompany pizza than the ones I've mentioned in this column.  But I think a safe choice for a pizza red should follow these guidelines:

1) It should be Italian.
2) It should be from a recent  vintage (less than five years-old).
3) It should not be expensive (say, over $25 retail). Expensive wines are too 'important' for delicately-flavored pizzas.
4) It should not be too full-bodied, too tannic, or too oaky.
5) It should be lively on the palate, rather than soft.

Wine with pizza, an inexpensive treat!