Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Wine with pizza: for me, pizza means a topping of green pepper, mushrooms, black olives, and spinach. Pepperoni is nice but not vital. No sausage, please, certainly no pineapple -- no "everything" or garbage pizzas as I've heard them called. But what wine?

I have read that it is quite European simply to reach for whatever wine you have on hand to serve with your meal: the whole point of centuries of wine-drinking in Europe is that this is normal, so take what you've got from your fridge or pantry the way you would take a glass of water from the tap. Indeed -- sshhh -- there was a shocking post about a month ago on Vinography announcing that food and wine pairings are a scam. Well, not entirely, but .... Vinography, by the way, is great fun.

What I had on hand with pizza was a Blackstone pinot noir, a Barefoot Zinfandel, and my trusty and well-beloved -- not unlike a medieval squire -- St. Gabriel Riesling. (We experiment slowly in this house.) I tried all three, and it seemed to me they were all acceptable. This has happened before, with other meals. The pinot noir rocked gently along beneath the crust and sauce, the zinfandel zipped along cheerily, you might say, with the pizza's spices, and the riesling was refreshing with the green pepper and the spices too. Compelled to choose, I ended up pouring a glass of the zinfandel.

Pizza being a sort of-Italian meal, a chianti might also have served well, being a red with light body, little tannin, and the acidity which seems to wash down food well. Another good choice would have been a Valpolicella. The first time I tasted one of these, I was underwhelmed. The wine was a light red, looking exactly as if it had been mixed with water, and the first word that came to my mind as I sipped was "plain." Not wanting to give short shrift to it-- and you'll find another interesting post, by the way, on "quality and ignorance" here -- I went home and looked it up in a little reference that I find invaluable, Hugh Johnson's How to Enjoy Your Wine. (To think I almost didn't buy this book a few years ago, because I thought for heaven's sake, how can some authority explain the proper way to enjoy anything! What a fool. But that's another post. Several, in fact.)

Hugh Johnson lists Valpolicella -- once again, European-style, this is a place not a grape -- under the sobriquet "fresh grapey young reds," and advises that they should have "simple childlike vitality" and be served as cool as a white wine, with food or without. They cannot be aged more than a few months, he says, or "the bottom falls out": so if you encounter a Valpolicella that is pre-2007, you will I suppose have a fresh grapey young red that has become "dull and thin." Dear me, what was the vintage of mine, which I thought was a bit plain? I am sorry to say that in my inexperience I forgot to take note of it, and I certainly cannot tell the difference, just by myself, between childlike simplicity and dull thinness.

At any rate, my first and, to date, my last taste of a Valpolicella, and what I learned about it subsequently, serve as a reminder that not all wines have to be the big, thick, inky-purple, throat-burning "monsters" that I suspect we all get over-accustomed to simply by drinking our share of what California produces. "Napa Valley," Johnson says, "made its name with this type of wine -- dark, potent, sweet, tannic, and high-alcohol," all the result of grapes ripened to "sticky blackness" in a warm climate. "Turbo-powered reds" can probably beat up almost any food, even pizza with its busy sprightly tomatoes, vegetables, spices, and cheese. And because they can, and because we think of these Napa-style wines as exemplifying what wine is, we tend to shy away from the very product that is meant to accompany a meal, when it comes to choosing a beverage for our meal.

Lawrence Osborne in The Accidental Connoisseur met a winemaker, an Italian coincidentally enough, who noted what she thought was a long-term taste trend among the wine-buying public. "People associate greater concentration with greater money value," she said, "so wines get sweeter and heavier all the time." She opined that the "great old Chiantis" of the past could not be made or sold now. They would simply taste too sour, too un-winelike.

So what made them great? Experienced wine lovers fear the loss of old traditions and the forgetting of old tastes in a rush to satisfy a growing wine-buying public too ignorant to realize that just a pleasant uniformity in the glass was never the point. Then again, for most of human history, before preservation was completely understood and before refrigeration was available, wine merchants were forced to race against time simply to bring customers something other than vinegar. So at present, we're lucky; sound wine is available, cheaply, anywhere.

Which brings us back to our pizza. Another way to determine what kind of wine might go well with it would be to consider what makes a good match in the things we drink with pizza already. Beer has bubbles and a low alcohol content; pop has bubbles and sweetness; iced tea has light tannin, a little sourness, and a little sweetness. Would we want therefore a riesling, a lambrusco, a Valpolicella? Or even a wine that would have all those characteristics -- my goodness -- champagne? They say it goes with everything.

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