My sister, Lori, after several years in the wine business from distributing to importing and walking and biking the vineyards of Burgundy, wrote her dissertation on biodynamic wine and was awarded her masters in French Civilization from Middlebury College in Paris. While Lori is one of the country's best "winos", I am clueless about the stuff; but she always makes me feel that wine choices can be really easy if you know a few rules. Luckily, she has agreed to share some of them - this time to find a pairing for our Carbonara.
Wine 101 and a pairing for Carbonara, by Lori Varsames
One of the least well known facts about wine, is that if you like it, it is good. The second is, wine does not have to be expensive in order to taste good. Taste is personal, and while there are certain guidelines for pairing wine with food, ultimately, it does not really make a difference unless you enjoy it.
This said, the “correct” pairing of a wine with food can bring that much more enjoyment to a meal. The right pairing has been known to bring out the best in a wine and a meal, that can inspire a near-religious experience. But there is no one correct pairing for a meal…There’s nothing like a nice cut of steak with a big Bordeaux or California Cabernet, but depending on the sauces, spices and other seasonings used, you may easily consider some other options. My favorite pairings tend to include wines that counter- balance the power of the food. A great pairing includes a wine that doesn’t overwhelm the dish, but rather complements it. It takes some of the stronger ingredients of the recipe, and softens them, to bring about a harmonious marriage of flavors. And there are no set rules about white or red choices, either. While many prefer a nice, big, juicy, tannic red with steak, there are others who still prefer their favorite Chardonnay. While it may not lead me to a religious experience, it may get you there!
As for carbonara, there many elements to consider…The cheese, the eggs, the saltiness of the pork, and oil. While this may strike you more as a white wine friendly dish --- and it certainly is – you may also easily make a case for the right red wine. Whether you choose white or red, the one element that is essential in both is acidity. Wines range from very acidic to tannic. Both act as preservative agents in a wine. In practical terms, this means if you can’t finish a bottle of wine, the more acidity in a white, and the more tannin in a red, respectively, will guarantee the freshness of the wine in the days to come. Acidity, in the case of carbonara, is paramount, and is the key element that will cut through the saltiness of the pork, the heaviness of the cheese, and the fattiness of the oil. Wines with higher acidity tend to be more refreshing, and are among the easiest to pair with the largest variety of dishes. The acidity reacts in the back and along the sides of your tongue, stimulating saliva production. This type of wine before a meal, is a great aperitif, because it stimulates the appetite. With a dish like carbonara that can be heavy on its own, a more acidic wine will refresh and soften the edge of heavier flavors. But there is a case to be made for both white and red wine alike. Experiment with both to find your preference. Learning about food and wine is really only an exercise in figuring out what you really like. With this in mind, I’ve selected four wines. The first two are meant to be everyday accessible choices; wines that you can find in nearly any wine store. I call these, “Easy Picks.” The next two, which I call, “Wine Geek Picks” are meant to offer you a little more exposure to the vastness of the wine world. Best to find these in a credible wine store that focuses on wine rather than liquor. Here goes:
EASY PICKS with Carbonara:
Pinot Grigio. This white grape, also known as Pinot Gris in warmer climates like France (Alsace) or Oregon, grows in northeastern Italy. The best, most complex ones come from Trentino and the Alto Adige, or if you are in a hurry, you can easily find one from the Veneto. The ripping acidity softens exponentially when facing the carbonara, and can be very refreshing.
Beaujolais. The red grape from this idyllic, hilly region in southern Burgundy is Gamay. Fruity, soft, with racy acidity, this wine is the house wine of nearly every café and bistro in France. Throw the bottle in the fridge for about fifteen to twenty minutes before serving. The chill brings out its freshness, and is sure to be the ultimate solution for counter-acting the saltiness of the pork. For a more complex and wine-savvy choice than your average “Beaujolais Nouveau” or “Beaujolais-Villages,” look for a Julienas or a Fleurie. These two Beaujolais come from towns within the region that produce more fruity, playful and floral wines that have more complexity than your average “Beaujolais” appellation.
WINE GEEK PICKS with Carbonara:
Kabinett Riesling: The designation of “Kabinett” means the Riesling is from Germany, and is the driest – read, least sweet – of the German wines. It is crisp and clean, with bright minerality and of course, great acidity! Rieslings from the Mosel and the Rhein are build on very steep, slate hillsides that rise above these two river valleys. This lends itself to a really beautiful mineral content. Ask your local wine merchant for famous producers such as J.J. Prüm or Dr. Hermann. But above all, make sure to get a “Kabinett.” If not, you risk the wine being too sweet. Though carbonara is a traditional Italian dish, do not discount the Germans’ love of pork, cheese and noodles. For these reasons alone, the Kabinett offers a very geeky, alternative choice to a Pinot Grigio.
Rosé. Often confused with its trashy American cousin, White Zinfandel, Rosé couldn’t be any different. Fruity, dry, and refreshing, it is the ultimate summer wine because it pairs to well with so many different foods. Contrary to popular belief, rose is not sweet, and it is not made by mixing white and red wines. Rather, it is a much more complex process. Most red grapes actually have white juice; it is the exposure to the skins after the crush that can produce a red wine. However, when the skins are exposed to the juice for only a limited period of time, this produces rosé. It will be the most overlooked wine in your store, but at this time of year, it is the freshest and easiest to buy. If you are finding a bargain purchase, just be sure not to save it for the middle of winter. Most rosés, with a few minor exceptions, are meant to be consumed young. Don’t clutter your wine rack with this one; just drink it!! It’s a no-brainer with all of the complex elements of the carbonara. Look for lighter rosés in Provence (southeastern France), or for darker rosés from Sicily or Spain. Either way, you won’t be disappointed in its ability to harmonize with carbonara!
Cheers! Here’s to your wine pairing success!