By contributing writer Mary Cressler
A few years ago when I was living in a small town in central Connecticut, one of our favorite places to eat was a tiny hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. They didn’t have an alcohol license, so they couldn’t offer any wine or beer. But they did have a BYO policy and, conveniently enough, there was a small wine shop located directly next door. The wine shop had a limited selection to choose from, but the one wine we returned to over and over to pair with our pizza and wings was a Kris Pinot Grigio, priced right about $12.
No matter what pizza we were eating—pepperoni (my husband’s favorite), barbecue chicken, or veggie, this wine always seemed to work. It was also a good match for spicy wings. Since pizza is a weekly staple for many of us (in my house we make homemade pizza or order take out every Friday night), I thought this month I’d focus on pizza and wine pairing.
Now there’s really no easy way to answer this pairing dilemma since there are about as many variations on pizza as there are sandwiches or burgers. So I’m not going to try and explain the best pairing for smoked salmon with arugula over a garlic sauce pizza, or dessert pizza, or any of the millions of exotic pizza concoctions out there. Instead, I’m going to focus on what the majority of people eat—basic pizza with red sauce and a few variations.
When I was conducting this experiment, a good friend of mine taught me a very cool new trick for making a quick and easy no-cook pizza sauce (see below).
Pizza and Wine Pairing
Key factors: sauce, toppings, and cheese
Because tomatoes are high in acid, tomato sauces tend to be acidic and typically a bit sweet. Look for a red wine that has good acidity and bold flavors to stand up to the acid and sweetness but one with moderate to low tannins (otherwise the tomato sauce will have a negative, often metallic, effect on the tannins). A wine with good acid will also help to cut through the gooey melted mozzarella cheese found on a typical pie. Several will work for this style of pizza.
Basic Pepperoni or Meat Pizza
I made a pepperoni and sausage pizza for this experiment. The main elements I looked at were the red sauce (acidic and slightly sweet) and the spicy meat. The classic pairing for this would be an Italian red like Chianti, made from Sangiovese grapes, because they tend to be unoaked or lightly oaked, fruity, and light bodied with good acidity. Barbera offers similar qualities (high acid, low tannins, good fruit) at great values.
The crowd favorite for my experiment was hands down the 2010 Michele Chiarlo “Le Orme” Barbera d’Asti. It had great dark fruit and good acid that hits you right away. There’s a mild spicy element to the wine, which made it really stand out with the spicy sausage on the pizza. In fact, this wine was a winner with all the pizzas. The best part is, it’s about $12 a bottle, making it an excellent value wine to have on hand for everyday occasions.
For something bolder, look to Zinfandel. Fuller bodied, rich in fruit, low in tannin, and sometimes spicy, this is a great match for the bold flavors of your typical pizza. 2012 Ravenswood Winery Vintners Blend “Old Vine” Zinfandel is a good standby offering bold dark cherry flavors, pepper, and spice. This was another that was great with the spicy sausage and a good choice if you prefer a full-bodied wine.
Veggie Pizza with Red Sauce
For this pizza I mimicked the typical vegetarian pizza you find at most pizza joints with mushrooms, green bell peppers, onion, and tomato. The same principle applies to the sauce (acid/sweet), so I focused on the earthy elements found in the vegetables, especially those mushrooms. My favorite pairing for this is a Pinot Noir, for the fruity and earthy characteristics, light body, and mild tannins, and the 2010 Erath Pinot Noir from Oregon did not disappoint. This light, yet fruity, Pinot Noir offers violets, bright cherry and cranberry fruit, and mild earthy tones, making it balance well with the vegetables, sauce, and melted cheese.
What About White Wines?
Don’t think you have to drink red wine with your pizza! If you’re having a white pizza this is where white wines will really shine, especially rosé and sparkling. Pinot Grigio is also great for this. As I mentioned above, the Kris Pinot Grigio in particular is an all around solid choice for even a spicy pepperoni pizza. This wine smells of bright citrus and sweet tangerines, has a bright crisp body, bold acidity, and is all around refreshing. It’s a good palate cleanser and stands up to anything from a white pizza, all the way up to your meat lover’s pizza. There was a reason it was our standby pizza wine years ago, and it stood up to the test for this experiment.
For All Other Pizzas?
For all the other pizza styles out there, just refer to the basic concepts as your guide. Red sauce? Stick to an acidic wine. Toppings? Whether it be meat or veggies or anything else, try to match the elements in the ingredients to the elements in the wine. If all else fails, just stick with your favorite go-to wine. I’m sure it will work just fine!
Basic Pizza Sauce Recipe
As I mentioned above, I had a friend visiting from out of town, and I invited her be a part of this experiment. When I was making the pizzas, she taught me a great tip for making a quick basic pizza sauce—make it in the food processor. I always cut up a bunch of veggies and slowly cook my sauce on the stovetop (a process that usually takes me upwards of 30+ minutes). She simply places fresh or canned tomatoes, along with some herbs and spices, into her magic bullet food processor and blends it all together. So quick and easy!
I tried it and the results were great. I’m definitely stealing this method from now on, especially for those Friday nights when I’m way too tired to think about cooking anything on the stove top.
- 1 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes (or the equivalent amount in fresh tomatoes)
- ½ teaspoon olive oil
- ½ teaspoon honey
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried basil
- ¼ teaspoon garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon fennel seed
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- a pinch of red pepper flakes
- Drain your tomatoes well (you don’t want your sauce to be thin or runny).
- Add everything to your food processor and blend until combined.
- Adjust flavorings to your taste preferences.
Now what about you? What are your favorite wines for pizza night?
We hope you enjoy our wine pairing choices. If you want to know which wines YOU will like best, download the FREE iPhone app Wine4.Me. Tell it what wines you know you like and get your own personalized rankings of best-selling, widely available wines in the US.
Mary Cressler is a Certified Sommelier, a Wine Location Specialist, and the proprietor of Vindulge: Wine Education & Consulting. She conducts wine classes and events and offers consulting for individuals, restaurants, and event planners.
She writes about wine, food, and travel on her blog Vindulge. Mary resides in Portland, Oregon with her husband, twin boys, and two Chihuahuas.