An illustration of a plate of paste with red sauce and a glass of red wine

An Italian American Family in Jersey City Holds the Secrets to the Best Wine to Pair with Tomato Sauce

Take it from a pro, your pizza night is about to seriously level up.

Long before I ever dreamed of becoming a sommelier (and later a wine writer and educator), I was tasked, around the age of 7, with decanting and pouring the wine at my grandparents’ weekly Sunday lunches. And that wine was invariably red because red wine was, and remains, the flavor-enhancing vehicle that drives many of my Italian family’s meals. The reason? Because so many of those meals employ tomato sauce, one way or another.

For context, we are one tomato-sauce-obsessed famiglia. We canned thousands of jars of sauce every August during my childhood, and we still do it every summer in my in-laws’ basement across town. (Here’s more on that homemade passata tradition.) That silky, crimson, basil-scented sauce gets used all year long, not only as the headliner in penne marinara, or the foundation of porky-beefy Sunday sauce ragù, but also for stracotto braises and as the delicate underpinning of sauces like amatriciana, Bolognese bianco, and white clam. And then there’s pizza. In our Napolitano household, homemade pizza means pizza fritta: fried pizza dough topped with tomato sauce imbued with olive oil, garlic, salt, and dried oregano; then mozzarella, a splash of EVOO, and another pinch of dried oregano, all baked together.

But what to pour with all this tomato-saucy deliciousness? For me, pairing wine with tomato sauce is an exercise first in matching acidity with acidity, and then accounting for sweetness and depth, depending on how the sauce is used. In general, raw tomatoes tend to be high in acid, but cooking them softens their acidity and heightens their sweetness. This opens up the wine-pairing possibilities, but I categorically exclude tannic, full-bodied, oaky reds (no disrespect to Cabernet and Bordeaux blends) because the acidity in the sauce will clash with the tannins. 

If you want to stick with Italian wines, go for the versatility of fruity, low-tannin, high-acid Barbera (as well as slightly less acidic Dolcetto) from Piedmont; cool-climate Teroldego, Pinot Nero, and Schiava from Alto Adige; earthy-spicy Chianti Classico from Tuscany; and from Sicily, the rustic yet elegant red wines of Mount Etna

Beyond the motherland, you can rely on Pinot Noir in general, as well as practically everything Rhône related, namely the so-called GSM grapes: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre — but if you’re in Jersey City and try that with my family, you may get some funny looks.

Tips for pairing wine with tomato sauce

Take acid into consideration; you want to match the acidity in tomatoes while balancing their sweetness.

Don’t drink white, especially super light-bodied wines like Pinot Grigio; they’ll collapse under the weight of the sauce.

Experiment with sparkling, especially dry Lambrusco — it’s one of my family’s favorite wines to pair with pizza because of its uplifting, tart acidity.

Rules for making great tomato sauce at home

Freshness matters: The very best tomato sauces are made with fresh, peak-of-summer tomatoes, preferably locally grown Roma or plum tomatoes that have never seen the inside of a refrigerator. Ever.

Yes, you can: If you don’t can your own sauce every August (like my insane family), buy canned tomatoes — but look for cans that feature the words passata or puree and list no more than two or three ingredients, like tomatoes and salt. My go-to is Bianco DiNapoli Crushed in Puree.

Great bottles for your next pizza night

I’m absolutely bragging here when I tell you that I am surrounded by some of the best pizza in America here in Jersey City, including chef Rick Easton’s Bread and Salt (for takeout) and chef Dan Richer’s Razza Pizza Artigianale (for dining in). Here are three wines I drink regularly at Razza, where I’m partial to Richer’s amazing Guancia pie.

NV Calabretta Cala Cala Vino Rosso ($20) This juicy, declassified Etna Rosso lives up to its name: Cala cala means “gulp gulp.”

2021 Oltretorrente Colli Tortonesi Barbera Superiore ($24) Fermented and aged in concrete, this is brightly tart but nonetheless rich, round, and fruity.

2021 Foradori Teroldego Vigneti delle Dolomiti ($33) Silky berry fruit, dusty dried herbs, and salty minerality from Italy’s Trentino region, by one of its greatest vignerons: Elisabetta Foradori.

F&W contributing editor Anthony Giglio is the wine director for the American Express Centurion Global Lounge Network. This year, he will speak at his 27th Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

Top Illustration by VISBII

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