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The Perfect Wine for Pesto Pasta: What Grows Together Goes Together
Note from the author: There are 1,368 varieties covered in Wine Grapes by MW Jancis Robinson, MW Julia Harding, and Dr. Jose Vouillamoz. Bet you can't try them all.
I once worked with a girl who swore the only thing she could cook was toast. "And I burn it 50% of the time," she claimed. One summer lunchtime, I pulled out a bowl of cherry-tomato-strewn, verdant pesto pasta salad, and Charlotte marveled over the bright and pungent, herb-speckled and oil-slicked farfalle: "Oh, I could never pull that off," she murmured softly.
I insisted that pesto was the simplest of feats, just a matter of throwing a handful of ingredients into a blender, tasting, and adjusting. No measurements! Substitutions welcome! Her eyes conveyed skepticism, doubt, and anxiety. I am sad for Charlotte because pesto has saved my hungry life on so many exhausted summer nights. She is missing out.
The real challenge for me has been finding a perfect wine to drink with it: something punchy enough to stand confidently against sharp herbs and garlic, yet textured and salty to complement all that Parmesan and the creaminess of the pine nuts.
I should have gone here sooner: The boomerang-shaped, coastal region of Liguria in Italy is home to the fair city of Genoa, which is also home to our fair lady of the hour, pesto... which is also home to your pairing success sister: Vermentino. "What grows together goes together," they say.
Local lore in Liguria will insist that a grape distinct from Vermentino called Pigato is grown here, making wines with steely citrus notes and a sharp salty bite. As it were, Pigato means "spotted," and DNA testing has now revealed Pigato to merely be a splotchy-skinned clone of Vermentino that's adapted to the area. A Piemontese grape by the name of Favorita is also identical to Vermentino, but the Italians staunchly defend individuality, says Wine Grapes: "The census lists Favorita and Pigato separately, recording 276 and 255 hectares respectively."
Wine Grapes also calls Vermentino "mid ripening and seems to benefit from proximity to the sea." (Don't we all?) Many Vermentino (or Pigato) vines are actually trained on steep terraces that cling to the sides of Ligurian sea cliffs. Maybe it's that salty sea breeze that lends the 2011 Riccardo Bruna Pigato Russeghine its saline tang, like a salt-sprinkled melon wedge with a trace of wild herbs. This isn't the fruitiest or most aromatic wine I've come across, but Wine Grapes assures me that Vermentino is "sometimes more mineral than floral, fruity or gently spicy."
My mother, who dislikes "wines that bite" (she's not a fan of high acidity) quite likes this wine's soft and peachy mouth-feel, and while I usually love a good bite, the Riccardo Bruna Pigato does the trick on this hot summer night where too much thinking or precious cooking is far too exhausting. I turn the blender off and spoon the pesto out over twists of gemelli, and that's when the Pigato kicks into full gear: punchy enough to face the basil and garlic yet nicely textured and salty to accent the Parmesan and pine nuts. So here's to Charlotte: You should really get up on this!
2011 Riccardo Bruna Pigato Russeghine
The Grape(s): Pigato (Vermentino)
The Region: Liguria, Italy
Retail Price: $25
The Importer: APS Wine & Spirits
About the Author: Stevie Stacionis is a wine writer and Certified Sommelier based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @StevieStacionis and check out her snobbery-free wine videos at A Drinks With Friends TV.