The Best Wine Pairings for Pasta Night (From an Expert)
With dazzling range of shapes, sizes, and styles, pasta is a classic dish that can be traced back to the Middle Ages in Italy.
Italians are particular about how pasta should be prepared, and for good reason. Pasta is a “world cuisine” that offers professional chefs and home cooks a broad template for creativity all over the world.
But no matter where you’re from, you can agree no pasta is complete without an excellent wine to pair with it. The right match for a pasta dish can really elevate it to another level.
If you’re doing something tried and true, the right combination can evoke memories of your last trip to Italy (or one you’d like to take in the future!).
To pick the perfect wine pairing for your pasta, it’s important to first understand how pasta is served around the world. That will help to give you some rules-of-thumb for how to pair wine with the pasta you’re making at home.
How Pasta is Served in Italy
Pasta (as we know it today) is actually a pretty recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the classic dried pasta — pastaciutta in Italian — became popular in Italy.
In its spiritual homeland, the noodles themselves are always the focus of the dish, with the sauce intended to accentuate the flavor. But here in the New World, it’s often the sauce that gets center stage.
In Italy, pasta is always the main ingredient in the dish. It’s served nearly exclusively — even religiously, we would go as far to say — as a first course, on its own, and as the star of its hierarchy in the meal.
The Italians reach for wines that won’t eclipse the flavors and wines that will work in balance with the dish.
How Pasta is Served in America
In the US, pasta has been adapted by local cuisines, top chefs, and home cooks, which has transformed the experience.
In Italy, toppings are generally classic and nuanced in nature. The sauce or condiment is intended solely to accent and accentuate the flavor of the pasta.
Here in America, the bolder and the more inventive, the better.
In America, you often have to look at the sauce or topping or the main food served with the pasta. Although there are a few exceptions, meatballs aren’t served over pasta in Italy like they are here in America.
So in America, you’re not just pairing your wine with the pasta, but also with the meat that’s served on top.
Pasta in the US is regularly served as a side dish, often an accompaniment to a protein or even as a starchy support to another dish. Think steak with a side of spaghetti and tomato sauce or spaghetti topped with chili in Cincinnati.
Another huge difference between pasta in America and pasta in Italy is the texture of and cooking time for pasta. The Italian expression al dente is often translated (slavishly) as to the tooth (what the heck does that mean, anyway?).
What it really means is slightly undercooked. Italians generally want their pasta to be slightly undercooked. If there’s one thing they can’t stand, it’s overcooked, limp, soggy pasta that doesn’t bind with its sauce.
All the above differences should play a role in your decision of what wine to pair.
Most Iconic Pastas and Wine Pairings
Finding some of the best pairing for classic Italian pastas is easy to do. All you need to do is look at the Italians favorite wine matches.
If you’re doing something more unconventional in nature, the right wine can really bring the dish into sharp focus by complementing its aromas and flavors.
Even if you choose not to go with the canonical Italian pairing or if the standby Italian pairing is not available, their combinations give us a wonderful roadmap for pairing pasta and wine.
In Bologna, the only wine that they pour with Tagliatelle alla Bolognese or “ragù” is Lambrusco, a sparkling, tannic, grapey red wine with low alcohol from Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy.
In Tuscany, Pappardelle with Wild Boar Ragù calls for Sangiovese. This could be Brunello or Chianti (and its many expressions).Also wines made with international grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah from the Tuscan coast will do nicely.
In Piedmont, where they serve their ragù with long, narrow noodles known as tagliolini, the trinity of Piedmontese red grape varieties — Barbera, Dolcetto, and Nebbiolo — are de rigueur (or should we say, di rigore).
Believe it or not, the traditional seafood pastas of Italy’s south are sometimes served with red grape wines, like Nero d’Avola in Sicily or Primitivo in Puglia (the heel of Italy’s boot).
But if we head over to Naples and the Amalfi Coast on Italy’s west side, we find that white grape varieties like Fiano d’Avellino and Falanghina are reserved for seafood pastas and especially for Spaghetti alle Vongole— long noodles with clams and Puttanesca, which needs something white and fresh to balance the heat in the dish.
In Rome, they typically serve classics like Cacio e Pepe, Carbonara, Gricia, and Amatriciana with the local red grape Cesanese. It has a wonderful white pepper note that plays against the freshly ground black pepper served atop some of these dishes.
Classic vs. Creative Wine Pairings for Pasta.
When in Rome, go classic. When in New York, ask for extra “gravy.”
Being in Italy is the best way to experience great pasta and wine pairings. But in the US, the creativity and adventurous spirit of some chefs and sommeliers can deliver equally spectacular results.
The most iconic pasta in the U.S. today is pasta with gravy. In other words, pasta that is served topped with the tomato sauce used to braise meats (stuffed braciole, sausages, short ribs, and meatballs).
For this quintessential Italian-American dish, red wine is almost always the way to go. And the heartier, the better.
When we sit down to enjoy our favorite recipe for meatballs and spaghetti, for example, we often like to reach for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Napa Valley.
The richness of these wines work wonderfully with the richness of the dish.
When in California, Take It Easy with a Light Touch
In California, where pasta is often served with sautéed fresh vegetables (like the classic Pasta Primavera), fresh and light white wines are a must.
We like to look to the white wines of Naples and the Amalfi Coast for pasta dishes served with vegetables like zucchine or asparagus, for example.
For dishes like these, when they are well prepared, the intense flavors of the fresh vegetables should be complemented and not dominated by the flavors of the wine.
Light, youthful Chardonnay from Sonoma is another go-to at our table, like our white wines from France’s Loire Valley and the western coast of France.
Albariño from Spain is another favorite pick. Again, the freshness of the dish needs to be matched by the freshness of the wine. And it’s important to let the vegetables be the start with the wine playing a supporting role.
Keep It Simple
The most important thing to keep in mind when pairing wines with pasta is that the wines should never eclipse the flavors of the dish.
With aged cheese or braised meats, for example, the complexity of an aged red wine can really accentuate the intense flavors of the food. Similarly, for seafood, the flavors can be extremely rich.
But for most interpretations of pasta, you want to make sure that the wine doesn’t “outweigh” the body and texture of the dish.
Remember: There is no right or wrong answer for pairing wines and any type of food. Don’t hesitate to experiment and be creative when choosing the right wine for your favorite dish. Browse some of our favorite wines to pair with pasta >