Drink & Dine: Wines That Make Comfort Food Shine 

Drink & Dine

If we can broadly agree that Italian food is a sure-fire path to wintertime eating happiness, it follows that grapes from the vineyards of Italy are likewise the optimum bottles to reach for. Photo: Johner Images/Getty Images

Italian food is synonymous with comfort food, epitomizing meals that represent satiation, relaxation, home, family and, yes, comfort. Pasta, pizza, gnocchi, risotto, focaccia, grilled rapini and radicchio, mascarpone and mozzarella are Italian menu staples, arriving at the table in multiple forms. Every one of them hollers joy, especially when sided with exceptional olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a dash of garlic. And, of course, sided with wine. No Italian meal is complete without it. 

As we enter the colder months, the idea of comfort food — something hearty to counter the enveloping cold and darkness — becomes less about want and more about need. If we can broadly agree that Italian food is a sure-fire path to wintertime eating happiness, it follows that grapes from the vineyards of Italy are likewise the optimum bottles to reach for. But which grapes from this staggeringly diverse area?

Certified sommelier Katherine Mellin is the founder and directing principle of Toronto-based boutique agency Apparition Wines & Spirits, which has been importing beautifully made and environmentally sustainable wines, many family-crafted, to Ontario since 2012. 

Though she works with producers worldwide, Mellin’s area of expertise is Italian wine — she has travelled the country countless times, meeting with myriad winemakers large and small from Veneto to Sicily, Umbria to Napoli, Piedmont to Campania — resulting in a spectacular frame of reference on the country’s vast wine-producing regions and varietals. 

Mellin spoke with Zoomer, kindly and candidly offering her best bets for reds and whites to pair with Italian dishes. Trigger warning: the following will make you weak with desire.

“For reds, Sangiovese is a beautifully versatile grape variety,” Mellin says. “For example, Chianti Classico, made predominantly with Sangiovese, is not typically a full-bodied wine but is medium and beyond medium and goes with so much, from elemental pastas to Florentine steak. Montepulciano, too, is a lovely grape variety, very easy, drinkable and versatile. There are some good examples of wine from this variety though, unfortunately, the LCBO doesn’t always carry them. 

“Another is Corvina, which is usually found in blends, like the well-known Valpolicella and the fuller-bodied Ripasso and Amarone. Recommending the Valpolicella Classico of these and perhaps the Ripasso, the latter for those who are committed to fuller-bodied reds. When people ask me for an Italian substitute for Pinot Noir, I recommend a Corvina wine from the agency portfolio, which is similarly versatile.”

Showing no mercy, Mellin continues: “For whites, Vermentino, which is grown in Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria and Sardinia, would pair nicely with a seafood risotto given its citrus notes and bright acidity. Another white, Ribolla Gialla — though not quite as well known (from northeast Italy), also light-ish in body but with stone fruit (peach) and slightly higher acidity — would be a potential match. 

“If you are looking for a fuller white, an Arneis from Roero, Piedmont, in the shadow of the Barolo region, is a slightly bigger white that everyone should get to know. It’s a winner with a creamy pasta dish. A white vegetable pizza calls for a white, and you’ll want something with a bit of an herbal element, like Pinot Grigio (or Pinot Bianco) or Sauvignon Blanc. Vermentino would work here, too.”

And while Mellin confirms that Pinot Grigio is among the best-known grapes from Italy, and an easy white to find across a broad spectrum of price points, she concedes that the grape is both “overrated and underrated,” a source of continued vexation for yours truly. But that’s a story for another column. Buon Appetito.