Wine is great with pizza. Of course it is! Pizza starts with bread and cheese, which people have been snacking on with wine since the beginning of recorded history; there’s probably an Egyptian drawing somewhere showing wine and cheese at a papyrus club.
If you’re having a “white pizza”—olive oil instead of tomato sauce—your wine options are nearly limitless. However, tomato sauce changes everything. It’s highly acidic and, regardless of the recipe, slightly sweet, because tomato is a fruit. It’s also often a little spicy. So traditional pizza is as good a food as any to exercise some basic principles of wine pairing.
Let’s look at these three attributes separately.
Acidic foods: Many fruits are high in acid; this is why fresh fruits are rarely served with wine. Tomatoes are not the most acidic fruits, with a pH around 4.5 (7 is neutral; lower numbers are higher in acid). Oranges and apples, which can be compared here, are both around 3.5.
Most sommeliers recommend higher-acid wine with acidic foods. This might seem counterintuitive, but you can prove it to yourself. Open a Malbec or a red blend, which are usually low-acid wines, and try some before and after eating an orange slice. Tastes kind of icky after the orange, right? More to the point, it feels kind of icky. You’ll want a higher-acid wine (the French say “fresher”) with your pizza to prevent the ick factor.
Slightly sweet foods: Very sweet foods are tricky to pair with wine because they can make wine taste sour. You generally want a wine that’s sweeter than the food, so with chocolate-chip cookies, your options quickly narrow to dessert wines like Madeira or Port.
Fortunately, most pizza sauce is barely sweet, hopefully not sweet enough for you to even notice that it is. This means you won’t be limited much in your wine choices; a wine with the tiniest bit of residual sugar will be just fine. You might be surprised by how many wines qualify. Just keep in mind that a wine that you enjoy because it tastes bone-dry might not be the best choice with pizza.
Spicy foods: Foods become more challenging to pair the spicier they get. Pizza with mushrooms and onions, no problem. Pepperoni kicks it up a notch. Jalapenos require you to get creative. This is an easy proposition to test. Try a bite of pizza, taste your wine, then add crushed red peppers to the pizza and try the wine again.
Spiciness is the most adjustable pizza flavor and thus your wine pairings depend on your pepper choices. The spicier the pizza, the more you’ll want to look for a lower alcohol wine with a little sweetness.
So answer the question already: what wines go best with pizza?
There’s a reason pizza restaurants offer Italian wines: they have the kind of freshness that many American wines try to avoid. I rarely have red wines with pizza that aren’t Italian.
I’m a big fan of Chianti Classico and other Italian Sangiovese-based wines with meat pizzas, as long as they’re not too spicy. You could also try a Nero d’Avola wine like Villa Pozzi. Try to avoid tannic wines like Cabernet or low-acid wines like Shiraz.
Rosés are a nice choice with pizza! They have fruit and freshness and slight sweetness. Pink wine is my favorite with pepperoni pizzas, and not just because of the alliteration.
If you like seafood on your pizza—clam and garlic pizza is a San Francisco specialty—try a refreshing white wine. This is Pinot Grigio’s chance to shine. Many people simply prefer white wine to red with any kind of pizza. It’s not an ideal Chardonnay pairing, though, because oak flavors don’t go well and Chardonnay is often not fresh enough.
For spicier pizzas, I stick with sparkling wine because of its slight sweetness. Italians like Prosecco and Lambrusco. American sparkling wine will also do the trick; I like rosé bubblies. For something very different, try Riesling or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Molto bene!