Wine critics are known for their astute reviews and acute awareness of the best food pairings. From the best wine pairings with salmon to fresh lobster or ribeye steak, there’s often an aura of refined meals–but now one wine critic is pushing back by offering up wine pairings for a far more casual meal, enjoyed by Italians and Americans alike: spaghetti.
John McDonald, wine critic and contributor to Cape Gazette, implies that some of the best wine pairings are with everyday foods as much as high cuisine. Most of his wine pairing suggestions seek not to create the most gourmet experience, but simply accomplish what wine pairings are intended for in the first place: enhancing flavors in dishes and making for a flavorful and enjoyable meal.
He’s not alone.
Tim Scallion, the columnist for Jacksonville Progress, a regional newspaper situated in Cherokee County, inspired by the waning days of tomato season, recently wrote an editorial describing wine pairings centered around marinara sauce, and, of course, spaghetti. Fresh, plump tomatoes make for delicious spaghetti sauce, and, in turn, pair beautifully with certain wines.
In fact, there’s been a push to make wine more accessible, which also goes hand in hand with making it more approachable. By showing consumers wine can be delightfully paired with a meal as simple as spaghetti, it appears more attractive.
And for regular wine drinkers, it’s a nice way to cap off a simple but delicious meal of spaghetti. In this article, we’ll discuss the best wine pairings with spaghetti, the rationale behind our choices, and even offer up some specific suggestions.
Is pairing wine with spaghetti a new thing? No. As you might imagine, the wine itself is a natural pairing with Italian food of all kinds, and spaghetti is no exception. That makes sense when you consider that Italy itself is very nice a wine country, so to speak.
In fact, Italy produces the most wine of any countries in the world. In 2018, Italian wines accounted for just under fifty-five thousand hectoliters, followed by France, with just under fifty thousand, and Spain with just under forty-five thousand.
Italy has a long history of wine, dating back over four thousand years. Even before the Greeks settled in Southern Italy, the wine was an everyday part of life. By the nineteenth century, Italy rose as one of the top producers of cheaper, table wine.
In the 1960s however, Italian wines also became more refined, when stricter standards were enforced. And by then, and well before then, wine and wine pairings had become synonymous with Italian food culture.
What kind of wines is Italy known for?
Italy is considered to have an almost ideal climate for growing a variety of grapes, but it is perhaps best-known signature red wines such as Barbaresco, Barolo, and Brunello. Among white wines, favorites include Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Saove and Arenis.
The most prominent wine regions in Italy include Piedmont, Tuscany, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, and Sicily. Do note that spaghetti can be paired with wines other than those from Italy–which we will discuss later. But taking a look at Italian wine culture as a whole show how prominent of a wine pairing culture exists.
Are there different types of spaghetti?
Technically there are different types of spaghetti, or at least within the same family. The differences are subtle and hard to really notice.
- Spaghetti refers to the classic, thing and cylinder noodles we probably most associate with the dish. This is the favorite pairing with a medium marinara sauce.
- Spaghettoni is very much like spaghetti, only it’s a bit thicker. The greater width holds up better with rich and dense sauces.
- Capellini is essentially a very thin version of spaghetti. A variation of this kind, and perhaps more popularly known is angel hair pasta, about as delicate of pasta as you can get. This is a great pairing with lighter sauces, especially olive oil-based.
What sauces are served with spaghetti?
Less important than the different variations of spaghetti is the sauce it’s being served with. While the noodle thickness will make a subtle difference in terms of the best wine with spaghetti pairings, the sauce could completely change what decisions you make.
Of course, when we say spaghetti, most think about the marinara sauce, but the truth is there are more sauce types.
- Classic Marinara Sauce is tomato-based, and normally incorporates some degree of garlic, maybe onions and a touch of savory herbs.
- Ragù: Also known as a meat sauce, this classic features ground meat, almost always beef and is less bright but richer.
- Pesto: For one of the brightest, lively takes, pesto is normally made with notes of basil and olive but also has a richness to it, thanks to nuts and cheese.
- Brown Butter: Brown Butter is just like it sounds, and features butter with a brown hue and a rich but simple taste. In fact, well-executed well, brown butter sauces will even have toasted notes.
- Alfredo: Alfredo is a rich, creamy and mild choice. While it is normally served with alfredo noodles, it can also be served with wider spaghetti. The cream sauce normally incorporates parmesan cheese.
For our purposes, creamy sauces include butter based, pesto and alfredo.
What about protein? When it comes to pairing wine with spaghetti, we’re are mostly concerned with the base sauce. That said, most proteins pair hand and hand with the sauce itself.
- Marinara sauce is typically served alone, as a vegetarian dish, often accompanied with a bit of parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. For a dish like spaghetti and meatballs, of course, meatballs are normally made from ground beef (though some opt for turkey meatballs as a lower fat alternative).
- Pesto sauce is also often served vegetarian, though occasionally shrimp or chicken may be added. The same is true for Alfredo and Brown Butter.
While the nature of spaghetti is versatile, meaning a variety of meats can be used, most spaghetti is vegetarian. Two varieties use ground beef, and for lighter, fresher sauces, chicken and shrimp may be used.
When searching for the best wine pairings do I need to consider both the sauce and protein being served with the spaghetti?
Yes and no. While meat normally has a large impact on preferred wine pairings, most choices here go hand in hand. Because spaghetti is first and foremost a pasta dish, no matter the variation, the sauce is still going to be the primary component. Since the sauces complement protein sources, it’s nothing to worry too much over.
Do all the best wine pairings with spaghetti come with Italy? Not necessarily. While some suggested wine pairings will in fact be Italian, we’re going to focus more on other components that impact wine with food pairings as a whole, including but not limited to: level of acidity, level of tannins, grape variety, and flavor notes, among others.
The best wine with spaghetti pairings will complement and enhance the spaghetti dish itself.
Is there anything I need to keep in mind when it comes to general wine pairings with pasta-based dishes? While there is no one hard and fast rule for pasta and wine pairings in general, keep in mind that pasta will feel a bit starchier and heavier, but also tends to take on the flavor of whatever sauces accompany it.
Of course, spaghetti is a lighter pasta, but nonetheless, as a base it is fairly neutral, meaning that it’s natural to pair with a variety of wines.
How do I find the best wine with spaghetti pairings?
Now let’s jump into the criteria for determining the best wine with spaghetti pairings. We’ll take a look at specific criteria you need to consider, and even provide some recommendations for specific wine with spaghetti parings.
Do I want red wine, white wine, or something else?
What color of wine you want depends mostly on the sauce being served with the spaghetti. For red sauces, like marinara, the best match is red wine. This also works quite well with a meat sauce. Olive oil-based or creamy sauces, including pesto and alfredo tend to pair better with white wines.
- If you do happen to have a dish that combines contrasting notes, such as shrimp and marinara sauce, you can go with either a lighter red or a bolder white, depending on personal preference.
- With some alfredo’s, if you really prefer, you can get by with a red wine like Barabera; it has a high level of acidity and pairs well with rich parmesan flavors.
What about the level of acidity?
On the most basic level, as we have already mentioned, spaghetti is fairly neutral. The level of acidity should complement the acidic levels (or lack thereof) in your sauce. A marinara or tomato-based sauce will have the highest level of acidity, while a cream-based sauce tends to have quite low levels of acidity.
- For cream based spaghetti, go for wines with subtle levels of acidity like a smooth Viognier. Too high of acidity will overpower more mild flavors and cut through the rich and creamy experience.
- For tomato-based sauces, try wines with bright acidity. Wines should have medium-high to high levels of acidity and more or less be able to match the acidity in the sauce itself. Lackluster acidity means the wine will do little to enhance the flavor of the dish.
How full of the body should the wine have?
Body refers to the mouthful, or how rich the wine feels as your drink. A full-bodied wine like Chardonnay tends to tastes more smooth and rich, while light body wines tend to taste more bright and refreshing.
- For cream-based, pesto or olive oil spaghetti, the best wine pairings will be full-bodied, rich and smooth. You want a wine that holds up to the creamy, rich notes and finishes with an impressive note.
- For tomato-based spaghetti, opt for a lighter-bodied wine, like Pinot Noir with will feel lively, bright and refreshing and lift up those more light citrus notes. Zinfandel also features high acidity, but will feel a bit richer because it has a fuller body. While lighter body wine works for most tomato-based sauces, if you’re adding meat, you want a fuller body to complement the ground beef.
What flavor notes should I look for?
Of course, looking for specific flavor notes is a way to really hone in on the very best wine with spaghetti pairings. You can play with flavor notes a bit, especially if you customize with different seasonings and/or protein, so that means it’s important not to stress too much over it.
- Cream-based spaghetti pairs well with soft flavors. Stone fruit, light citrus, and touches of sweetness, such as honeysuckle and vanilla are ideal. Peach, apple and pineapple are also nice flavors that work quite well. If you do want to opt for bright red wine with a richer, especially creamy sauce, stick with red fruit flavors that blend deeper and also brighter flavors; strawberry, plum and and blackberry in Barbera are rounded out with notes of vanilla and anise.
- Tomato-based spaghetti pairs best with bright citrus notes. Shy away from smooth flavors like vanilla and opt for more statement notes such as cherries, boysenberry, but the trick is to also add in some richer notes, almost jam-like, especially if you’re adding meat to your sauce.
What about aging?
Many who do not regularly consume wine assume that aged wine is always preferable, but this simply is not the case. What aging does do is refine flavor notes and add complexity to wine–which is ideal for smoother, richer and full body wines but less so if you’re looking for wines with bright acidity.
- Cream-based spaghetti pairs well with aged wines, if you prefer. Aging will add toasty vanilla notes and make the wine taste more complex and rich. That said, aged wines are best with a simple cream based spaghetti. If you are adding lots of seasoning and other add ons, you may or may not prefer it as much.
- Tomato-based spaghetti, on the other hand, is not necessarily best paired with aged wine. Again, aging adds more of those toasted and rich vanilla notes, and as a result can cut through the bright acidity. If you are adding meat to your sauce and want your pairing to come off a bit richer, that may be an acceptable option.
Do tannins matter?
Again, this is another area you don’t need to stress over too much, but tannins do play a role in the best wine pairings with spaghetti. Tannins are considered drying agents that also make wine more astringent and textured, thus adding structure. As a rule, red wines naturally have higher levels of tannins than white wines.
- For the most part, spaghetti dishes do best with wines with lower levels of tannins
- One exception is meat-based, tomato sauces. The meat calls for a bit more structure and texture, as you would get with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Can you summarize the basic rules for pairing wine with spaghetti?
At its heart, the most important rule is a simple concept: some of it comes down to personal taste. Spaghetti is especially forgiving when it comes to wine pairings, which means you have a little room to play with in terms of flavor notes and basic characteristics.
That said, generally, creamy sauces are best paired with dry, white wines with low levels of acidity, a full-body, and gentle stone fruit notes, with touches of vanilla and even baking spices.
Red sauces with spaghetti are best, not aged, fresh, bright, acidic, and light to medium body. If you add meat to your sauce, then consider also focusing on some deeper red fruit notes or even jam-like elements.
Can you suggest any specific wine with spaghetti pairings?
Now that we’ve established some general guidelines to consider, let’s take a look at some examples of some of the best wine pairings with spaghetti.
- For traditional meatless spaghetti (marinara sauce) try a bright, uncomplicated red wine like 2017 Joseph Drouhin LaForêt Bourgogne Pinot Noir. This Pinot Noir is not only affordable, but it’s a pleasant, well-rated and bright red wine perfect for a simple dish of spaghetti. The light body is accompanied with pleasing cherry notes and just a bit of spice.
- For meat-based, tomato sauces, try a richer bright still acidic red wine, like Montoya Zinfandel. Described as a classic bottle of Zinfandel, bright berries and paired with deeper plum notes and a richer body for a jam-like, immersive finish that complements the rich and sweet notes of the ground beef.
- For spaghetti with cream sauce or pesto, try Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay. This Chardonnay is a classic pick, with toasted notes from oak aging, apple notes, and soft citrus.
- For a richer alfredo sauce, consider Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Orme 2016. This Barbera is an excellent choice for spaghetti with an exceptionally rich and creamy sauce, especially if you prefer red over white wine or simply are not a fan of Chardonnay. Cherry and blackberry offer classic but not overwhelming richer flavors.