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Wine and Pasta: An Expert’s Guide by Timothy Buzinski & Mei Ying So, owners of The Artisan Wine Shop, Beacon

Pasta is perhaps one of the simplest foods, yet it can also be one of the most sublime. Our favorite basic pasta dough recipe calls for flour, water, eggs and a little salt. Fresh homemade pasta will move your dinner guests to applause and tears, while a pound of dried pasta is the savior of the midweek cook. What to drink with this common, yet uncommonly good, foodstuff? Well, it depends on the sauce, of course.

Matching wine to the sauce in a dish is one of the easiest ways to ensure a great experience at the table. We’ll focus on pasta to illustrate this point because pasta, no matter how divine, is usually a vehicle for other flavors. Yes, simply dressed, the flavor of pasta is front and center, and inspires song and poetry. However, when pasta is tossed, filled or layered with more robust sauces, its subtle and more neutral flavor recedes to the background and acts instead as a prop, playing the straight man to more colorful characters.

Keep in mind that the sauce is paramount or at least equally important when choosing wine to go with most dishes, for instance, with proteins such as chicken or pork. However the cooking method, the cut of meat and accompaniments are often just as essential a consideration as the sauce in these cases. The simplicity of pasta, however, easily gives itself over to a “sauce-determines-the-wine” discussion such as this. The comparatively straightforward cooking method and flavor of pasta allow you to concentrate mostly on the sauce. A light seafood-based broth will bring a far different effect than a spicy, chunky sausage and tomato ragł. In turn, one’s wine choices need to match these divergent sauces.

Let’s break down the different styles of sauces into six general categories, listed below, with some rough ideas on where to look for a bottle to go with a new or favorite dish. While we often think of Italian wines when enjoying pasta dishes, this is certainly not mandatory. Most countries produce a style of wine to accompany any of these categories. We have omitted perhaps the easiest sauce, the mix of garlic and olive oil, but would suggest that this sauce lends itself to most wines. Hence, personal preference is probably the best choice here. And in all instances, when a heavy hand is used with spice and heat, lower-alcohol wines will do better, as will ones with a good streak of fruit.

Cream- or Butter-based Sauces
Rich sauce styles such as Alfredo or Carbonara need an equally rich wine to handle their weight. Additionally, the creaminess begs for something equally round and supple so as not to abruptly cut off the full mouthfeel of the dish. Reach for a concentrated chardonnay or perhaps a viognier, a typically rich French grape that makes fabulously aromatic, generous whites. A chardonnay to try: Domaine Alfred Chardonnay Central Coast Goss Creek 2006 ($17-$19) offers abundant fruit with subtle oak tones.

Meatless Tomato-based Sauces
Pairing tomato sauce and wine can be a tricky balancing act. There is high acidity from the tomatoes, but there is usually also significant sweetness in many commercially made sauces. Furthermore, there is such variation from sauce to sauce. In this case, you’ll want to find a wine that has great balance: good fruit yet profound acidity without excessive tannin. Try an easy drinking Chianti or montepulciano. Experiment with various wines with your favorite sauce and find your personal preference. You might look at some of the more modern styles in Portuguese values out there, such as the Quinta de Bons-Ventos Vinho Regional Estremadura 2007 ($8-$10).

Tomato-based Sauces with Meat
While some of the same considerations hold true here as for meatless tomato sauces, the meatiness brings a hearty dimension that calls for a bigger wine, preferably red. Look for wines with bright red fruit flavors and significant heft, such as a full-bodied Chianti Classico or a Rosso di Montalcino. Even a moderately aged monastrell from Spain or a California old-vine zinfandel would deliver.

Meat-based Sauces
Here are sauces that really dominate the pasta. Anything from a simple spaghetti Bolognese to braised short ribs over tagliatelle would call for heartier reds. Some suggestions: southern French blends, aglianicos from southern Italy, California or Washington State syrah. These big-flavor, frequently tannic wines will cut through the richness in the meat and match its weight. One to try is the Intrepid Wine Company Aglianico Beneventano IGT 2004 ($19-$22) made by Vinicola De Angelis.

Seafood-based Sauces
There are certain wines that work well with briny seafood. For lighter preparations such as shrimp scampi or linguine with white clam sauce, look to light-bodied whites with plentiful acid; these are complementary to seafood in the same way citrus is. Try a Frascati from Lazio or Muscadet from the Loire. A heavier dish, such as seafood fra diavolo, could use a richer wine, such as a clean and refreshing rendition of a white Côtes du Rhône based on grenache blanc.

Herb- or Greens-based Sauces
Here we’re talking about the grassy green flavors of herb sauces such as pesto, quickly braised leafy greens, or simple oil with herbs. With a pesto, because the Parmesan, pine nuts and olive oil add a good bit of richness, you’d need a fresh, vibrant wine that can stand up to it. Give this beautifully aromatic and crisp vermentino a shot: S’Éleme Vermentino di Gallura DOCG 2007 ($13-$15). A lighter sauce of oil, garlic and broccoli rabe would call for less intense acidity, perhaps even something with a bit of fruitiness to balance the bitterness of the greens, such as the biodynamically grown Gysler Scheurebe Halbtrocken Rheinhessen 2007 ($17-$19; 1 liter bottle). With any of these flavors, a lighter pinot noir would also be appropriate if your mood is red, especially if mushrooms make an appearance.

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