I had a delightful revelation about food and wine the other night. But first, a little background on how I got there. For years, I’ve had an unwritten rule about Italian-inspired food: match it with Italian wines, which so often seem just the right choice. With linguine and white clam sauce is there anything better than a pinot grigio from Alto Adige or a Vernaccia di San Gimignano? Don’t tomato-based sauces, with or without meat, seem made for Chianti Classico or Barbera d’Alba? With that in mind, I was headed in the direction of Italian wine the other night as I made a simple sauce built around the last Ziploc bag of tomatoes I had picked at their peak ripeness in late summer and early fall, then frozen to be enjoyed many months later.
After cooking the tomatoes down and breaking them apart with a wooden spatula, I poured them into my favorite cast-iron skillet, in which I had sautéed three or four cloves of chopped garlic in olive oil. I tossed in a handful each of chopped basil and parsley and a pinch or two of salt and cooked everything for a few minutes more. A quick taste revealed a sauce sweeter than anything that might have started in a can, confirming the rewards that come from the time and trouble of storing fresh tomatoes. Meanwhile, a pot of fusilli was now done to al dente, which I combined in the skillet with the sauce. To finish things off, I sprinkled a generous amount of chopped fresh mozzarella over the pasta and put the skillet under the broiler until the cheese and the top layer of fusilli were a crispy brown, but not burned (cast-iron is best for withstanding the high temperatures of the broiler).
Now about the wine. Since my instinct steered me toward Italy, I opened a bottle of red I had on hand, a negroamaro from Salento in Puglia. Alas, I knew immediately that this wine was not going to cut it. It was earthy with low acidity, a wine more for a juicy roast than a lively sauce. I wanted something that jumped out of the glass, a wine with refreshing acids that wouldn’t be overpowered by the tomatoes. And so, throwing caution to the wind, I opened a red from France’s Loire Valley I had bought that day.
By now you might be thinking it was a cabernet franc, the region’s principle red, or perhaps a pinot noir or a cot, as malbec is called there. In fact, it was the 2009 Gamay from Serge Batard’s Domaine Les Hautes Noelles, a Vin de Pays from this top producer of Muscadet from Cotes de Grandlieu sub-zone. Its transparent, light-ruby red color suggests a wine of delicacy that might easily be overpowered. But just the opposite was the case. Packed with flavor and with great underlying acidity and minerality, it more than held its own against the sauce and, slightly chilled, provided the perfect refreshing counterpoint. With flavors or red and black cherry, a touch of gingerbread and a very long finish, this is a wine of unusual finesse and, at just $10 here in New York, is one of the great bargains out there right now. Alcohol is 12 percent.
And so, my rule about Italian food and wine was broken. A humble gamay, the same grape grown in Beaujolais, proved itself exceptionally well with, of all things, a big-flavored pasta sauce. A Daniel Johness Selection, imported by Michael Skurnik Wines, Syosset, New York.