A bite of silky prosciutto di Parma, a sip of red wine -- what could be better? It’s no accident that great charcuterie plates are found in the wine bars that have been springing up all over town. A platter laden with smoky speck and salame Felino just begs for a glass of wine. But what wine? A fruity Beaujolais? A meaty Ribera del Duero? A juicy Barbera?
How exactly do you choose what wine goes with all that beautiful lomo or bresaola or mortadella?
“I try to marry flavors,” says Caroline Styne, co-owner and wine director of A.O.C. and Lucques. “I prefer when I’m drinking wine with food for the two to complement each other rather than do something tricky. I like to find wines that mirror the flavors of spiciness and meatiness.
“I wouldn’t want a wine that’s too heavy.... I wouldn’t want something that’s too velvety. Something more with a silky-smooth texture to it. I want something with a little less weight on the mouth. Something with a little more acidity to balance the fat -- a little less viscosity.”
“Lambrusco!” says David Rosoff, wine director of forthcoming Mozza. That’s the stuff that’s popular with all the cool kids lately -- you can’t attend a dinner party without someone showing up with a bottle of the light red sparkler from Italy’s Emilia region. “It must be accepted that this particular one is the perfect mate for salted pork products. The bubbles help to cut the fat, cleanse the palate, wash it down the gullet,” Rosoff says.
“Your mid-palate should have some fruit; if there’s too much spice in the back palate, then it’s not going to pair well,” says David Haskell, owner of BIN 8945 Wine Bar and Bistro. A good charcuterie wine, he says, will be “not overly spicy. Not too much black pepper.”
All that theoretical talk is well and good. But we decided to convene The Times tasting panel to find out what works best with salumi in real life. The panel, which included restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, columnist Russ Parsons, deputy features editor Michalene Busico, food editor Leslie Brenner, writer Corie Brown, contributor Patrick Comiskey and La Terza partner and wine director Claudio Blotta, met at La Terza restaurant in West Hollywood. We paired 25 wines with a selection of salumi assembled by chef-owner Gino Angelini and chef de cuisine Danilo Angelini.
We knew going into the tasting that some of the wines of Piemonte -- particularly Freisa, Barbera and Dolcetto -- would be a good place to start, as the region produces these delicious wines and terrific salumi. And Beaujolais is known to pair well with the saltiness and milder flavor of hams, but would it also hold up to spicier cured meat? Gutsy, meaty Ribera del Dueros from Spain seemed a logical choice, since the region is known for its cured meats such as lomo, jamon iberico and chorizo. Grenache-based wines from the southern Rhone seemed as though they’d have the right acidity, as did Cabernet Francs from the Loire Valley. We brought some New World Syrahs too, and even a Malbec.
Laid out on La Terza’s big wooden table was mortadella and guanciale, prosciutto di Parma, pancetta, bresaola, speck, coppa and salame Felino and Milano and finocchiona, cacciatore, crespone and soppressata. We supplemented La Terza’s spread with a few selections from Armandino Batali and Paul Bertolli, including Bertolli’s salametto (salami with cracked black pepper and sea salt), his nostrano (garlic and white wine salami), and Batali’s finocchiona (fennel-flavored salami). We lined up the 25 wines on the bar, made ourselves plates of salumi, grabbed glasses and started sipping and tasting, comparing and discussing all the while. The tasting was not blind.
The clear winner that went with pretty much everything on the plate? Lambrusco. The panel agreed almost unanimously that the perfect match for charcuterie and salumi is a good Lambrusco. Frizzante and festive, Lambrusco has a perfect balance of acidity and ripe fruit that goes so well with the salt and fat and spice of salumi. “A great summer wine with a prickle that cuts through the fat,” remarked Virbila about one of them. They’re also low in alcohol -- often at just 10% to 11%, sometimes as low as 8% -- which makes them appropriately quaffable (salumi tends to make one thirsty).
The winner of the tasting was a nonvintage, extremely affordable (about $12 retail) Barbolini Lambrusco Grasparossa.
Another wine that worked beautifully was Vietti’s 2004 Barbera d’Alba “Tre Vigne.”
Rosoff had pointed out that Barbera isn’t always an easy match with salumi, because Barberas come in “so many shapes and sizes.” But this Barbera, aged in stainless steel, was fruity, with good acidity and a long finish that drew out the flavor of the meat, with a touch of earthiness to offset the salt and enough sweetness from the fruit to draw out the sweetness of the fat.
A number of the French wines went surprisingly, terrifically well with so much of the salumi, particularly three Beaujolais village wines. Of those, a 2005 Domaine du Vissoux Moulin a Vent was a standout. This one was substantial and complex enough to match much of the salumi; it was fabulous with more delicately textured prosciutto or mortadella.
The red wines of the Cotes du Rhone are known to match grilled meats fairly well. Laden with ripe red fruit, a little smoky and a little spicy, “Little James’ Basket Press,” a nonvintage Grenache from Gigondas in southern Rhone, also paired well with prosciutto di Parma, speck and bresaola.
Although everyone on the tasting panel loved a red Sancerre, a Lucien Crochet “La Croix du Roy” nonvintage, it somehow didn’t “really connect with the meat,” Busico said.
The Spanish wines in the tasting seemed to garner the widest range of results. A Grenache from Campo de Borja was a miss, but a couple of gutsy Ribera del Dueros weren’t so big or tannic that you couldn’t enjoy them with a lot of the meat.
The New World wines in the tasting, on the other hand -- a couple of Syrahs from the Central Coast and from Australia, a Santa Barbara Grenache, an Argentine Malbec -- fared less well because they were so rich and big that they overwhelmed the meat. This was somewhat predictable. “Most of the New World wines tend to have a stronger flavor profile and they have thicker textures and they tend to also have even lower acidity than what the Old World has to offer,” Peter Birmingham, sommelier at Norman’s in West Hollywood, had explained before the tasting. “And with that they become kind of clumsy or awkwardly presented with certain types of cured meats.”
Birmingham couldn’t have been more spot on. We’ll take the Lambruscos any day.