Pairing Italian Wines with your Holiday Meals

Pairing Italian wines with your holiday food choices is easy

Here they come.

If you’re like me, you have a throng of friends or family coming over for the holidays. You’ve probably already picked out what you’re serving for your Big Meal. 

Now it’s time for the important decisions: What wines should you serve? Well, Italian of course!

Bring in the Italians.

Italian wines are quintessential “food wines” and really strut their stuff best when paired with food.

I roll out the bottles of Vino Italiano at every holiday gathering. Here are my go-to picks when pairing Italian wines with holiday meals.

These aren’t intended to be the end-all recommendations for wine & food pairings, these are just my favorites that seem to work pretty reliably.

You may have some great recommendations, too. Share your wine pairing recommendations in the Comments section below. I’d love to hear about the wine pairings that work well for you.


Pairing Italian wine with food is easy.

Basic wine pairing rules.

Before I get into specific pairings of Italian wines with holiday foods, it’s best to keep in mind a few basic wine pairing rules. I find that these basic rules for white, red and sparkling wines work pretty well, and my fellow diners are always happy.

White wine pairing.

I use a very simple rule of thumb with white wines:

Oaked white wines.

If a white wine has seen time in oak, it will pair well with foods that have butter in them, were cooked in butter, or have a butter-based sauce. It’s easy to remember: A “buttery” or oaky white wine goes best with “buttery” dishes.

Un-oaked white wines.

If a white wine is un-oaked, it’s likely more fruit dominated and it’s going to pair best with dishes that benefit from citrus. If your dish works well with a bit of lemon juice squeezed on it, then an un-oaked white wine will go well with the dish.

Rosé (Rosato) wine pairing.

Rosato wines are great “bridge wines” between courses of whites and reds, and go well with lighter dishes like roasted & grilled fish, shrimp, chicken, pork chops, and veggies. They’re perfect for summer holidays and lighter meals.

Getting the pairing right can make the difference between a good and a great meal.

Red wine pairing.

Red wine styles span from simple, fruity and young, all the way to tannic, high-alcohol monsters. Keep it simple and use these two guidelines:

Lighter reds and un-oaked reds.

Lighter version of Chianti, Barbera, Barbaresco, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and Valpolicella are fun (and usually a great value) to pair with simple dishes, like pasta with red sauce, roasted chicken, grilled pork chops, pizza, heck even a burger with cheese and bacon.

Heavier and full-bodied reds.

The bigger red wines, like Brunello, Barolo, Amarone, and Aglianico have more tannins and have seen a good amount of time in oak. That tannic profile calls for richer dishes with more fat, like beef steaks grilled rare, veal roast, lamb chops, venison, and wild boar stew.

Bubbly wine pairing.

Sparkling Italian wines, like Prosecco, Franciacorta, Asti Spumante and Lambrusco, are party favorites and go well with all types of food. I group the recommendations for sparkling wines depending on whether they’re sweet or not:

Dry sparkling wines.

Most dry and off-dry wines, like Prosecco and Franciacorta, pair naturally with mineraly dishes from the sea, like oysters, clams, caviar, smoked salmon, sushi, and even popcorn. Prosecco is also surprisingly good served with fried chicken (try it!).

Sweet sparkling wines.

Sweeter wines like Moscato d’Asti, Asti Spumante, Brachetto d’Acqui and Lambrusco can pair wonderfully with cheeses and salumi, berries & desserts made from fruit, lemon and orange flavored desserts, holiday breads like panettone. Some even claim that Lambrusco is an awesome pairing with a bacon cheeseburger.


The joy of gathering around the table during the holidays is made better with a bit of vino Italiano

Italian wine pairing with holiday dishes.

Main Dishes.

Beef.

Beef is a very strong flavored meat, and many of the favorite cuts, like filet, New York strip, rib-eyes, and prime rib, tend to be very rich and have a good amount of delicious fat. With these, a more full-bodied wine with tannin is a natural pairing. Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Aglianico based wines go well with beef:

  • Aglianico (Taurasi)
  • Barolo
  • Brunello
  • Chianti Classico Riserva
  • Vino Nobile
  • Amarone (particularly with very fatty cuts)

Veal.

Veal is more delicate than aged beef, and requires a lighter hand when it comes to wine. While you could pair Veal with a tannic monster, I’d try for a wine that’s a bit more elegant & refined. Note that you can pair Veal with a nice oaky Chardonnay if a cream sauce is involved (delicious).

  • Barbera
  • Barolo (lighter bodied wines)
  • Barbaresco (lighter bodied wines)
  • Chianti Classico (normale, not riserva)
  • Pinot Nero
  • Supertuscan with Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot
  • Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
  • Oaky Chardonnay (for roasted veal or served with a cream sauce)

Lamb.

Most lamb dishes are rich and fatty, and pair best with bigger, more full-bodied red wines. Many of these on the list are classic pairings with lamb in the regions where the wine is made.

  • Aglianico (Taurasi)
  • Amarone
  • Barbera
  • Barolo
  • Brunello
  • Chianti Classico Riserva
  • Vino Nobile
  • Cannonau di Sardegna
  • Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

Pork.

Pork dishes can range from very lean to very fatty, so you should think about whether the dish is delicate or very savory when pairing a wine. More delicate pork dishes require a light- to medium-bodied wine. Savory pork dishes can handle a medium- to full-bodied wine.

Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) is a classic pairing with all things pork, and generally you can’t go wrong with that. Personally I’m a fan of pairing pork with wines that have cherry notes, like Sangiovese from Tuscany, Nebbiolo from Valtellina, and Rossese from Liguria.

  • Pinot Nero (Oltrepo Pavese, Friuli)
  • Barbaresco (lighter bodied wines)
  • Nebbiolo (Langhe)
  • Valtellina Superiore
  • Chianti Classico (normale, not riserva)
  • Primitivo
  • Pelaverga
  • Rossese di Doceacqua
  • Oaky Chardonnay (for pork dishes served with a cream sauce)

Turkey, Chicken & Other Fowl.

Whites and rosé wines usually pair best with most poultry dishes, but lighter-bodied red wines can be wonderful with more savory bird dishes. The rule of thumb is to go with a light- to medium-bodied white for more delicate dishes like roast turkey and chicken, and a more full-bodied white, a rosè or a light-bodied red with savory bird dishes.

If your poultry dish includes butter or a cream sauce, you can’t go wrong with an oaky Chardonnay.

If you’re making a dish with strong flavors like tomatoes or a cacciatore dish, go with a medium-bodied red, such as a simple Chianti, a lighter Primitivo (Zinfandel), or an un-oaked Barbera.

If barbecue sauce is involved, the best pairing is Primitivo (Zinfandel).

With fried chicken or deep-fried turkey, try a dry sparkling wine like Prosecco or Franciacorta. It’s a beautiful thing.

  • Chardonnay (lightly oaked for dishes prepared with butter or cream sauce, otherwise an un-oaked wine)
  • Pinot Grigio
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Soave
  • Rosé (dry or off-dry Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Pelaverga rosato)
  • Barbera (for savory dishes, un-oaked or lightly oaked)
  • Pinot Nero (for savory dishes, lightly oaked)
  • Primitivo (if BBQ sauce is involved)
  • Prosecco, Franciacorta (for warm or cold fried chicken)

Fish, Crab, Lobster.

When you’re serving fish dishes, how you prepare the fish influences what to pair with it. If you’re using butter in the preparation of the fish, or serving it with a butter or cream sauce, you can’t go wrong pairing your fish dish with a nice Chardonnay that’s spent some time in oak. If your fish dish is prepared without butter, avoid oaked wines.

Salmon pairs nicely with most rosé wines, and can even stand up to a light-bodied Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir).

If you’re serving crab or lobster, particularly where butter is involved, go with an oaky Chardonnay.

  • Pinot Grigio
  • Pinot Blanc
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Soave
  • Riesling (dry or off-dry)
  • Rosé (dry or off-dry Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Pelaverga rosato)
  • Chardonnay (Oaked for fish, crab, lobster dishes prepared with butter or cream sauce, otherwise un-oaked)
  • Pinot Nero (For salmon, try Oltrepo Pavese, Friuli wines) 

It's holiday time, how about a glass of vino Italiano?

Pair with good friends.

When someone asks me what food goes best with an Italian wine, I always respond with “it pairs best with good friends.” Sure, it’s a bit cheesy, but it’s so true.

Italian wines are more than food friendly, they’re also people friendly. The Italians are a gregarious bunch, and it comes through in how they celebrate and share meals together. Italian wines are always within the center of the shared experience, bringing along their own unique personalities to the dinner table.

Invite some Italian wines over to pair with your grand meal. Put out the glasses, pop some corks, and watch the Italian magic begin.

Ciao.
Michael

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