Italy has long been known for wine, from Northern red wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, and, to Southern wines ranging from dessert wines (Moscato and Marsala) to white blends. But one region is now gaining attention as a place to enjoy not only fine Italian wine but some of the best wine with risotto pairings.
Franciacorta is situated in Northern Italy, nestled by the captivating Lake Iseo and verdant landscape. Situated a solid hour away from Milan, it is a less known and quieter region but one that just so happens to offer sparkling wines, most notably Prosecco, produced with the classic method used to make Champagne from France.
Even more notable, wines from this region are said to exhibit a signature silky finish you don’t find in other regions of Italy, and it’s that silky finish that pairs so nicely with regional risotto.
Of course, it’s not just Italy where you can find wine pairings with risotto. In Houston, creamy parmesan risotto and wine make for an elegant dinner. Some of the most acclaimed bistros in Los Angeles do the same, offering up additions such as rosemary, specialty cheeses, pesto, and even truffles and meat.
But when it comes to wine with risotto pairings, there is a certain technique, and certainly not all wines pair well. With the creamy, in some ways delicate, and rich characteristics of risotto, you want to make sure your wine pairings enhance, rather than mask the risotto.
In this article, we’ll guide you through everything you need to know when it comes to discovering the best wine with risotto pairings.
Is risotto Italian?
Before we can properly pair wine with risotto, we need to look a little into what risotto is. Like wine, risotto does have a long history as an Italian mainstay. Risotto can be traced back as far as the fourteenth century when long-grain rice was introduced to both Spain and Italy by Arabs.
Sicily, in particular, proved to possess the qualities needed to grow rice: relatively high humidity and flat land. In fact, for most rice, it is important that temperatures are at sixty degrees Fahrenheit or above at night, for a minimum of three months of the year. Without enough humidity, which produces moisture, rice often dries out and dies.
The risotto itself did not make an appearance until the late fifteen hundreds when an apprentice working at the Cathedral Duomo Di Milano created it out of anger when others equated his work on the stained glass windows to have the same color as saffron.
Rather than ruining the wedding festivities, as the apprentice planned, the herb-infused concoction was well received. It’s unclear exactly how long it took for the risotto to gain traction, but eventually, it became not only a beloved dish but one celebratory of Italian culture.
What is risotto?
Risotto typically has a base of five ingredients. While there are many different kinds of risotto, the staple ingredients include:
- Italian rice: Also known as Arborio, Italian rice is also produced in other regions of the world, including in Arkansas, Missouri, and California. The short-grain rice distinguishes itself from other rice with an especially stretcher composition, and round shape, which becomes creamy as it is cooked. In addition to risotto, its creamy, starchy and mild qualities make it a favorite for rice pudding.
- Sofrito: Sofrito refers to many things, depending on what you’re cooking. In Spanish dishes, for example, sofrito refers to normally a mixture of pungent vegetables, such as garlic, onions, and tomatoes. Sofrito is basically a mixture of vegetables and seasonings sauteed and simmered, normally with olive oil. In risotto, what it contains varies quite a bit, but popular ingredients include kale, mushrooms, basil, and bell peppers and actually common substitutes butter.
- Broth: Broth provides moisture for the risotto and helps it cook while adding some lift and flavor to the overall profile. Normally, chicken or vegetable broth is preferred for a light flavor.
- Seasonings also vary but include saffron, salt, and garlic.
- Cheese is another area of variation, but popular cheese selections include parmesan and white cheeses.
How is risotto made?
Risotto is not so hard to make, but it does take patience. A key to the best risotto is first selecting quality base ingredients, then making sure you’re allowing enough time for flavors to properly develop.
- The first step is to let the rice cook slowly. Stirring is important, or else you risk uneven cooking, or even burning. The broth should be added slowly over about twenty minutes until it’s absorbed and the rice fully cooked.
- Gradually adding broth releases the rice starches and makes for a creamier result.
- There is a shortcut method, known as ‘par cooking’ which is favored by many restaurants because it not only takes less time but requires less attentive cooking. However, this risks marring the texture of the rice and making it too ‘sticky’ which takes away from the creamy result.
- Sofrito preparation is relatively simple. Vegetables are finely diced or sauteed, in olive oil or butter; if adding onions, they should appear almost clear.
- Rice is added to the sofrito. The best method is to use something like a wooden spoon and lightly coat it in oil. Rice needs to be sauteed long enough to develop ‘nuttiness’ but not so long it becomes brown.
- Broth, butter, seasonings, and parmesan are added. This can take time, but the result should be rich and creamy.
What are the different varieties of risotto?
Risotto is highly customizable, which you’ll need to take into consideration somewhat when selecting the best wine pairings. Most of the customization depends on if any meat is added; what type of cheese is used; and the sofrito and seasonings.
- Meat possibilities include sausage, chicken, bacon, lobster, and shrimp
- Vegetables include spinach, kale, mushrooms, onions, peppers, broccoli, peas, and even squash
- Cheese options include parmesan, goat cheese, feta, and cheddar
- Other additions include herbs, tomatoes, citrus, and cooking wine, as well as seasonings
- Examples of specific versions include, but are not limited to: bacon and cheddar; Caprese; creamy mushroom; kale and greens; shrimp and garlic; simple parmesan; fresh herb; ham and pea; pumpkin or butternut squash; sweet pea; lobster; and red wine risotto.
Does only Italian wine pair well with risotto?
While some of our wine pairing recommendations will indeed feature Italian wines, it will not be exclusively wines from Italy. Some Italian wines do make a natural pairing, but we’re more concerned with the basic characteristics of those wines, including the levels of acidity, tannins, flavor notes, and variety.
Also, it’s important to note that, while risotto first gained prominence in Italy, it is now consumed in a variety of places around the world, as as a result, as risotto takes on regional flavors, wine pairings often must as well.
What approach should I take when trying to find the best wine with risotto pairings?
The first thing you need to think about when trying to find the best wine with risotto pairings is the base itself, and its principal qualities: creamy, rich and starchy.
The next layer is meat and seasoning additions. The more delicate the additions, the more delicate the wine; while more robust flavors generally call for a bolder wine.
In this guide, we’ll go step by step through the key wine characteristics that pair best with risotto. We’ll also suggest specific pairings with certain types of risotto.
How acidic should my wine be?
Wine acidity provides a tartness when you drink and a ‘puckering’ feeling that is similar to citrus. Acidity is known to cut through the fat and works well with a rich and creamy dish like risotto. Acidity is also a natural pairing for brightening vegetables and seafood like shrimp or lobster. The key is to make sure it is not too overpowering
Most risotto dishes play well with a mildly acidic wine. For a fresher, brighter risotto, made with greens and fresh herbs or shrimp, you can even get by with a zippy Prosecco.
A more moderate level of acidity pairs well with dishes high in umami flavor, such as creamy mushroom risotto.
You want enough acidity to brighten the dish, but not so much it fights the creamy, rich notes.
Do tannins matter?
Tannins are sometimes an overlooked quality but they are quite important when deciding the best wine with food pairings. Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that provide texture and astringency. In general, red wines are far higher in tannins than white wines. Tannic wines, such as Syrah, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon, tend to be quite bold.
For the risotto, you are much better with wines with low levels of tannins, most often white wines, though a few red wines are possible (we’ll cover this in a moment).
The astringency and heavier quality of tannins do not pair well with more subtle and creamy flavors.
Can I only pair white wine with risotto?
Are you tend to prefer red wine almost exclusively over white wine, the good news is that you aren’t restricted to white wine. Though white wines are the more natural pairing option, sparkling and light red wines also work quite well with risotto as well, mostly if you go for a meatier risotto, such as risotto with sausage, bacon, or even mushrooms.
How full-bodied should my wine be?
Body refers to the sensation and degree of fullness or mouthful as you drink. In general, full-body wines will present as heavier and richer, while light body wines tend to leave the impression of more playful.
If you are opting for red wine, it needs to be quite light in bodies, such as Pinot Noir or even a sparkling Lambrusco.
For white wine, it depends on the specific variety of risotto, as well as what flavor profile you want to achieve. In most cases, go for a medium-full to full body white wine, such as Chardonnay, Viognier, or Pinot Grigio. This is a great balance, matching the richer starchy notes, cheese components, while still balancing more subdued herbs and more delicate seasonings.
What flavor notes pair best with risotto?
Flavor notes are among the most noticeable qualities which distinguish certain wine varieties from others. Here, there is a variety of flavor notes that work, largely depending upon the specific variety of risotto.
- For risotto that features bright green flavors, opt for citrus notes, such as lemons, limes, and even a touch of sweetness, such as honeysuckle
- For meat or mushroom or cheese heavy risotto, choose light apple flavors, with touches of sweet and smooth notes, such as butter and vanilla.
- Avoid dark berry or fruit notes. If you opt for red wine, look to brighter notes, such as strawberries, over-rich blackberries or dark stone fruit
- You’ll also be wide to steer clear of overly rich, other deep notes such as cocoa and baking spices
- Go for citrus-based over smoky notes. Something like Syrah, for instance, with signature smoky accents, or anything with bits of cedar or tobacco are not the best options.
- For a mushroom-based risotto, you can get buy with wine that exhibits light mineral or earthy undertones (some versions of Pinot Grigio are less fruity and more mineral-based)
- Don’t go for a full fruit-forward wine for most risotto; you want a degree of citrus or mineral undertones
Should my wine be dry, sweet, or somewhere in between?
Most pair sweet dessert wines (such as Moscato) with either cheese, fruit, or full desserts, such as cakes. With risotto, you’ll want a dry to off-dry wine. Very dry wine is not the best option, as it will be too strong and not properly complement the naturally rich, almost sweet starchy notes. If you go for sparkling wine, keep it dry, as the carbonation may even come off with an off-dry feel.
Should I go for aged wine?
Wine aged oak presents with stronger, toasted oak and vanilla flavors. For brighter, vegetable and seafood-based risotto, aged is not necessarily better, because it tends to result in subdued acidity.
What about wine pairings with specific types of risotto?
Now let’s take a look at specific wine pairings based upon the version of risotto.
- Meat and mushroom risotto pair best with light red wines, such as Pinot Noir and Lambrusco (avoid other red wines with jam or smoky notes) or white wines with vanilla, buttery, or earthy undertones such as Chardonnay.
- Bright risottos featuring greens or bright herbs should be paired with citrus-based white wines, such as Pinot Grigio or Viognier.
- Creamy, cheesy risottos call for a balance between the two: citrus but with also some creamy undertones. These are the most versatile and even work with sparkling wines for a bit of lift, such as Prosecco.
Do you have suggestions for specific wine with risotto pairings I can try?
Now let’s take a look at a few wines with risotto pairings you can try. As always, personal preference plays a factor in what pairings you’ll like best.
- For the classic or simple risotto, try a substantial, but still bright and acidic wine like Talbott Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay 2014. This bottle of wine features Meyer lemons and ripe nectarines to provide enough fresh acidity and lift, but also buttery and lightly almond notes for enough substance to match the creamy and rich qualities of risotto. If you want a lighter, more playful touch, you can even get by with a Prosecco, like La Marca Prosecco. This budget-friendly wine won’t be a great fit for especially rich risotto but is an option for brightening up a more simple rendition, with citrus, lemon, apple, and touches of mineral notes.
- For a bright, fresh risotto try a zippier, playful white wine, such as Pighin Pinot Grigio Friuli Grave, Friuli-Venezia Giulia. This Italian Pinot Grigio presents a bright, fresh and citrus profile with just a touch of floral notes for added interest, and plays well both with herbs and fresh greens.
- For a creamy, cheese-based or squash risotto, try a dry to off-dry Lambrusco such as Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro Amabile. This affordable wine is fruit-forward, smooth, and a natural pair for mild but creamy flavors. It works especially well with cheese-based risotto, but could even work with an autumn squash risotto.