One of my absolute favorite things about summer is fresh basil from the garden. I use it widely, but mostly with fresh tomato sauce, pizza, sandwiches, and, of course, pesto. But, it’s also getting to be that time of year when I notice that my basil plants are getting a bit old and tough, and that they probably should have been harvested weeks ago. Luckily, it’s not too late. Though using young, soft leaves that are shorter than three inches at the spine is best for authentic Genovese pesto, giving older leaves a quick blanch and soak in ice water can still bring deliciousness. (If you’re in the Philly area, you might also check out my Great Pesto Challenge piece over at Small Food.)
Pairing pesto with wine can be difficult. (For clarity, we are talking about a traditional pesto of basil, garlic, pine nuts, EVOO and Parmesan.) The sauce is both pungent, with assertive flavors from the garlic and cheese, and delicate, as basil has quite a bit of nuance. Generally, whether looking for white or red wine, young, fruity, aromatic wines are far better than anything aged, overripe, oaky, or flabby. Good pesto is bright and fresh, so you want to find a wine that exhibits similar traits. Of course, another key consideration is what you are serving with the dish. A simple pasta dish dressed with pesto, for example, will probably work better with a white wine, but the addition of heartier ingredients such as sausage or tomatoes make red a viable option.
As is the case for most Italian food, the safest bet with any pairing is to follow the rule “if it grows together, it goes together”. Genoa, pesto’s homeland, is in Liguria, a small region on the Mediterranean coast just northwest of Tuscany. The indigenous white grape here is Vermentino, which makes lovely wines that offer rich flavors of tropical fruit but also bring great acidity, matching the dual personality of its sister sauce. Ligurian Vermentino is not exactly easy to come by in our area, but Sardinia’s Argiolas makes an excellent option – Costamolino ($14.99) – which is widely available and delicious for the price. Of course, other aromatic northern Italian whites can also work well, including Ligurian Pigato and Bianchetto Genovese, plus Arneis, Gavi and Soave.
On the red side, we can look to the simple red wines of neighboring regions Tuscany and Piedmont for good pesto partners. Think a young, inexpensive Chianti or Barbera that is bright and fruity, with perhaps a touch of earth.
If Italian wine is not your thing, we can use the same principles to pair international varieties to the sauce. Chardonnay’s tendency to be oaky and buttery, for example, means it is probably worth avoiding, unless you know you are getting an acidic, un-oaked version. Sauvignon Blanc, on the other hand, has that bright, herbal character that could work here. Southbank Estate Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough, for example, features a strong citrus note that could bring out the best of the pungent sauce. Vibrant whites from Northwest Spain, such as Albarino and Godello, are also worthy of consideration. The Martin Codax Albarino ($14.99), which is widely available, has a touch of oak for softness (as the grape can be very austere), but enough acidity to cut through any richness.
New world red wines can be difficult because of their tendency to be ripe, concentrated and oaky, all of which would clash with pesto’s soul. Looking to France, however, could yield dividends, especially young, fresh Pinot Noir, Cru Beaujolais (try a Henry Fessy), or Loire Cab Franc (maybe even one from Long Island), all of which bring great acidity and herbal character. In California, a cool-climate Zinfandel or Pinot Noir with similar characteristics could pair nicely, especially if some meat is involved.
Lastly, let’s not forget about Rose. It goes with everything, especially over the summer. Not much more to say there.
What have you paired with pesto? What worked and what didn’t? Comment below.