If you look at pairing guides you will usually see a recommendation to serve Chianti with pasta and tomato sauce. The explanation for the pairing is that Chianti, as is true with most Italian wines, has good acidity and you need acidity to stand up to the acid in tomatoes. Low acid wines will taste flat. Some Chiantis also have a tomato paste flavor note that would match the flavor of the sauce.
However, I think this pairing requires some caution.
I tried three inexpensive wines with each sauce—a Chianti, a Super Tuscan blend (60% Sangiovese, with Cabernet and Merlot), and a white wine, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo. The reds were of medium body; the white wine was light but aromatic with good acidity.
The marinara sauce was not enhanced by the red wines I tried. The cherry notes seemed to compete with the fruity/floral notes of this sauce and in effect buried them. And the tannins (the drying, grainy impression that most red wines have on the finish) made it difficult to sense the wonderful confluence of acidity and heat that give the sauce a lively after taste. With this sauce, the white wine (made from the Trebbiano grape) was superb. The peach flavors were pleasant and added a fruity dimension to the dish but the flavors were muted enough so that the nuances of the sauce still sang. Italian white wines are often ignored because they lack intensity and heft. But with this dish they are perfect. A Frascati, Orvieto, Soave, or Pinot Grigo would be equally compelling.
The red wines were a better match for the sugo di pomodoro, although still not ideal. This sauce doesn’t have a strong finish so the red wines added some structure to the experience. But I still missed the delicate nutty flavors of the sauce when sipping the wine. Once again the white wine paired better supplying modest fruit flavors to complement the sauce but without overpowering it.
Only with the slow-cooked gravy did the red wines hold up. There was enough concentration of caramelized tomato and umami flavors to stand up to the robust tannins and the cherry notes did not seem as if they were competing with the tomato.
So when you have delicate flavors that are important to the sauce, go with crisp, subdued white wine. When you have a rich bold sauce with lots of caramelized depth go with a medium body red wine with good acidity. I would stay away from young, big, tannic wines like Cabernet or Syrah unless softened with age.
The wines I tested were:
Gabbiano Chianti 2012
Centine Tuscany 2013
Fantini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2013
Additional Posts in the Tomato Sauce Project: