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As part of an ongoing series, several local sommeliers were asked to put their considerable expertise to use in coming up with a wine pairing for an affordable dish that readers might consider a regular part of their weekly rotation—in this installment, the gnocchi with marinara sauce at any of the four locations of Pines of Florence. The wine had to retail for $12 or under and be available in local stores.
David Bueno, Taberna del Alabardero
Muga, rosé, 2004, Rioja, Spain
Seemingly a simple checkered-tablecloth Italian dish, the gnocchi with marinara sauce posed unexpected challenges for Bueno. “The dish has an earthy component, from the potato, as opposed to just a typical pasta dish. I thought, I need a wine with more minerality than you would expect.” And the marinara has “lots of garlic and herbs. It’s a very rich sauce.” The richness seemed to rule out a white wine, although Bueno went ahead and tested a viognier anyway, on the off chance that its minerality and body might prove a formidable enough partner. Nope: “The tomato sauce just killed it.” A Chianti classico would have made a “natural match—that’s the kind of dish a Chianti is made for,” but it’s hard to find a good one for less than $30. A cheaper Chianti he tried was “too aggressive. It was killing everything.” With a dish like this, “you want acidity, but not too much alcohol.” Eventually, Bueno arrived at a diagnosis: “It had to be something between a white wine and a red.” Yes, a rosé. He taste-tested one made from the cabernet grape. Close, but too sweet. He opted, instead, for the Muga rosé, made from the garnacha grape. “There’s a cherry-tomato component in the garnacha. So it’s sweet in the beginning and dry at the end.” And all that “rich, red fruit” helps to tame the acidity of the sauce. Bueno calls this wine from Rioja an “easygoing drink,” good also for chicken or even pizza. “No pepperoni pizza, because the pepperoni would be too strong. Anchovies, though—you could have those. Seriously, pizza makes a very good match.”
John Wabeck, Firefly
Cantina Santadi, Carignano, 2001, Sardinia, Italy
Ask a chef to pair a wine with a dish and it’s no surprise if you also get a technical breakdown of the cooking. “It’s pretty sauced up,” says Wabeck, who is studying to become a master sommelier. “It’s kinda tough to find a wine to get through all that tomato sauce.” Wabeck’s first inclination was to go with a Chianti or possibly a nebbiolo—both of them well out of the specified price range. “A $12 Chianti in the store? That’s going to be a mess.” A barbera? “Too refined for such a rustic dish.” Taste-testing a couple of bottles of Côtes du Rhône, as well as a couple of more obscure whites he’s fond of, Wabeck was dismayed by the way the heaviness of the gnocchi and the acidity of the marinara seemed to stomp on the wines’ suppleness. He flirted with the idea of a rosé, only to dismiss it as “a little lightweight,” although it would “clean your palate each time you take a bite.” In the end, the memory of an “eye-opening” trip to France last spring led him to a “simple country wine” from Cantina Santadi. The acidity from the tomato? “No problem—the Carignano ate it up,” thanks to a “touch of volatile acidity in the nose.” The weedy herbiness in the sauce? The floral notes were able to withstand it. Wabeck was moved to fantasy as he talked of his pick: “Sitting out on the patio with the boys and the ladies all around, chomping on olives and passing the bottle around, you’re gonna be having a good time.”
Ralph Rosenberg, Zola, Red Sage
L’Avvocato, barbera d’Asti, 2003, Italy
Rosenberg was not as troubled as Bueno and Wabeck by the acidity of the dish. The gnocchi, he says, have “a lot of built-in fat, which calms down a little of the acid” in the sauce. So he looked to his “secondary profile” of the dish: its earthiness. No lamentations, here, for an out-of-reach Chianti. Even if it weren’t out beyond his budget, Rosenberg says he wouldn’t pick it: “It’d be like hitting a three-penny nail with a 10-pound hammer.” In other words, too much wine for too simple a dish. His choice is the “grossly overlooked barbera,” the versatile table wine of Piedmont, which “dances amazingly with some wonderful food.” What earned the L’Avvocato barbera the nod was its dry finish, its light body, its bright fruit, and above all, its earthiness: “You open up a bottle and smell it, and if you’ve ever been to Italy after a spring rain, that’s what it smells like.”
Jarad Slipp, Ray’s the Steaks
Brunellesco, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, 2003, Italy
The quirky Slipp, known to diners for his idiosyncratic pairings, surprises once again with this un-unconventional Montepulciano, a “yummy” and “rusticky” red possessed of “light fresh plum and berry fruit, with enough leather and tannin to give it spine.” What, no sparkling white from Eastern Europe? His first thought, he admits, was “to go the oddball route” and find a Hungarian wine; gnocchi, after all, originated in Hungary. “But sometimes you don’t want to overthink these things.” So enamored was Slipp of his matchmaking that he even popped the cork the morning after to try it out with the cold leftovers. “I just finished off the last of the bottle,” he told me that day. It wasn’t even noon.—Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.