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Aug 22, 2006
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Wine With . . . Pesto Pasta

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

 

Gardens and markets are chockfull of fresh basil this time of year, so pesto pasta makes a terrific late summer supper.  It's an easy dish to prepare and, being full of seasonal flavor, very satisfying.  But it can be a tricky wine partner, if only because it tastes simultaneously rich and fresh-a somewhat paradoxical combination.  On the one hand, pasta tossed with pesto tastes lively and bright, the herbal flavor being primary, so an equally fresh, summery white would seem a good choice.  On the other hand, it's a fairly substantial dish, so threatens to overwhelm just that sort of wine.  Given its zesty character, perhaps a spicy red would work better?

 

We set about the other evening to find out, and sampled thirteen different wines with bowls of fettuccine coated with fresh pesto and topped with grated Parmesan cheese (see the recipe below).  Since we weren't even sure what color would work best, we selected six whites, six reds, and one rosé.  We did figure that tannic wines would be excessive, so tried to stay with medium-weight reds, just as we avoided light whites whose principal charm is subtlety and nuance.  Given the origin of this dish, about half of our choices were Italian; but since we were making and eating our meal in the good old USA, we made sure to include wines from other countries as well.     

 

The results of our tasting surprised us.  Overall, the reds performed better than the whites, but this was less because they were weightier than because they were more flavorful.  In fact, with this dish weight or body didn't seem all that important.  One of the best matches, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with herbal flavors that complemented and enhanced the pesto, was one of the lightest wines in the group.  But both a peppery California Zinfandel and a spicy Rosso di Montalcino proved equally good partners, even though they were much fuller-bodied.  The keys to a successful match with pesto, we discovered, are forceful flavors and bright acidity.  Both reds and whites that tasted soft or subtle (a northern Italian Tocai Friulano, for example, and a Julienas from Beaujolais) seemed empty and nondescript when sipped with the food.  And wines that showed overt oak (a Tuscan Chardonnay and a California Cabernet Franc) turned bitter with it.  The best matches, no matter the color or body of the wines, were those in which the flavors complemented those of the dish while at the same time the acidity provided a counterpoint to its rich character.    

 

Pesto Sauce

 

3 cups loosely packed basil leaves

¼ cup pine nuts

½ teaspoon salt (preferably kosher)

Dash of cayenne (optional)

2 cloves garlic, chopped

½ cup olive oil

¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

 

Tear basil leaves into shreds and place them in a blender along with the pine nuts, salt, cayenne and garlic.  Pulse ingredients together, adding a little of the olive oil if necessary, until a thick paste is formed.  With the motor running, slowly pour in the olive oil.  Scrape mixture into a bowl and stir in the cheese. 

 

Before draining your pasta, stir a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water into the pesto.  Then toss the pesto thoroughly with the pasta and serve immediately, passing extra grated cheese at the table.

 

        

Selection

Approx. Price

Comments

 

Angelini, Montalcino (Italy) Rosso di Montalcino 'Val di Suga' 2003

(Imported by Wilson Daniels)

 

 

 

  $26

 

This was one case where the wine's medium body and silky finish--in perfect balance with the weight of the pasta--actually did seem to make a difference. Its plum flavors also added a tasty extra dimension to the pairing.

 

 

 

 

Artezin, Mendocino, Sonoma, and Amador Counties (California)  Zinfandel 2004

 

 

 $15

 

If you want to serve a big, rich red with your pasta alla pesto, this is the style to go for.  Zin's tendency towards spiciness makes a delectable connection with the basil and garlic, while its juicy berry character tempers the wine's inherent power

 

 

 

Banfi, Tuscany (Italy) 'Centine' Rosé 2005

(Imported by Banfi Vintners)

 

 $12

 

This rosé's marked fruitiness bonded deliciously with the olive oil in the sauce.  The combo was even better when we drizzled additional oil over the pasta (but then what isn't improved by an extra spritz of good olive oil?)

 

 

 

Glazebrook, Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauvignon Blanc 'Ngatarawa' 2005

(Imported by Frederick Wildman)

 

 

 $14

 

We agree with our friend Rose Beranbaum's description of Sauvignon Blanc paired with pesto as 'grassy synergy.'  While we found a softer, fruitier-styled Sauvignon disappointing with the pasta, this crisp, herbal rendition made for a succulent partnership indeed.

 

   

 

Montes, Colchagua Valley (Chile) Syrah 'Alpha' 2004

(Imported by TGIC Importers)

 

  $21

 

As with Zinfandel, when Syrah is distinguished by hints of black pepper and other spice it co-mingles wonderfully on the palate with the piquancy of pesto.  This Chilean contender is furthermore lush and supple, with plenty of black cherry and other ripe fruit flavors contributing to its complexity.