Wine World: Flour in your Ears

Typical Roman-style pizza

Someone I used to know once foolishly remarked that pizza is not real food. He was Russian, so that might explain it. He was also an idiot and one of those tiresome people who are always right, so there’s really no point disagreeing. He thought the British are pompous and over-bearing; that most Americans are dim-witted and as for the Chinese…well, perhaps I’d better not repeat what he thinks about the Chinese, but coming from a Russian, it was pretty rich.

Pizza of course, has been around for centuries. It’s probably been around longer than Russia. The word itself first appeared over a thousand years ago but the kind of pizza that we’d recognize today has been popular in Italy since the early 19th century. But there are few places in Thailand where you can buy a really authentic one. You can of course make them yourself, provided you’ve got an oven that can reach the minimum temperature of 260°C or 500°F. Although they’re not particularly difficult to make, it can be a bit tricky getting the dough right. It’s a messy business too, working with all that flour. But as they say in Italy, Non si lavora in un molino senza infarinarsi, which means “you don’t work in a flour mill without getting flour in your ears”. Or something along those lines.

Wine is the traditional drink with pizza. Italian wine, of course. Italian wines are made for food. Forget Bordeaux and Burgundy. They’re just not the right style. You can forget those big fruity numbers from Australia too. Pizza started life as down-market street food and probably existed in many different forms. Oddly enough, it doesn’t really matter whether you drink red or white wine with pizza, as long as they are dry. The dominant flavour of pizza is usually the base tomato sauce which to my mind will work with either red or white. Sea food pizza might be better served with a dry white, although the popular tuna pizza is so strongly flavoured it also works well with red wine.

If you prefer reds, any rustic red will do, but to my mind, three stand out. Chianti (kee-AN-tee) is dry and moderately tannic, with a sharp cherry flavor. It’s one of the most well-known Italian reds and is perfect with pizza. Chianti is not a grape variety, but a region in central Tuscany. Years ago, it came in a fiasco: a flask-shaped bottle enclosed in a straw basket, but these days most of it comes in a regular wine bottle.  It’s made from the Sangiovese grape blended with a couple of others. It often comes with a spicy aroma of cherries, hints of red berries and a faint farmyard smell. I know it doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but it’s a typical Sangiovese aroma and is quite pleasant. It adds a rustic touch.

Like Chianti, Valpolicella (val-polly-CHELL-ah) is not a grape variety but a wine region. It’s in the province of Verona, between the foothills of the Alps and Lake Garda. Most Valpolicella is a light table wine and my personal choice for pizza. They’re usually not quite as dry as Chianti and made from a blend of the Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara grape varieties.  My third pizza option would be Bardolino (bar-doh-LEE-noh)- a light-bodied summery wine, and less assertive than the other two. It’s an uncomplicated fresh and fruity ruby-red wine which comes from the northern Italian town of the same name. Like Valpolicella, it’s usually made from a blend of Corvina and Rondinella giving it a fresh cherry and herby flavour.

If you prefer white wines, there are three obvious choices. One of them is Frascati (fra-SKAH-tee), the classic Roman white wine which has been produced in the region for over 2,000 years. It takes its name from a tiny, ancient town in the hills south-east of Rome and it was evidently a favorite wine of the 199th century Pope Gregory XVI. Look out for the mid-range Fontina Candida brand which is always reliable – dry, light-bodied with a subdued flavour which doesn’t over-power the food.

Soave (SWAH-vay) is an attractive plain dry wine that comes mostly from vineyards around the city of Verona and it goes well with mild-flavoured pizzas. It’s made mostly from the Garganega grape variety but some modern tyles tend to be slightly fruit-forward, depending on the location of the vineyard.

Verdicchio, (ver-DIK-ee-oh) from Central Italy is perfect for seafood pizza, because of its crisp mouth-feel and sea-air freshness. It’s a wine of high acidity and good structure and typically comes with citrus fruit flavours.  There are other white wines that work well with pizza, notably Orvieto and Pinot Grigio but in recent years I have come across a few rather poor examples. And incidentally, with Italian wines always try to buy the more expensive if you can afford them, because they are less likely to disappoint. Don’t forget, always buy recent vintages to ensure your wine is fresh. With some rare exceptions, if the Italian wine is more than four years old it’s almost certainly over the hill. “Caveat emptor!” as they used to say in Rome.