Like many traditional Southern Italian dishes, it had a decent kick of spice, and peppery heat clashes with tannic wines, making the heat seem hotter and the tannin even more mouth-puckering. This dish needed a flavorful, aromatic wine with a smooth finish that wouldn't be overwhelmed by the sauce's slightly gamey, herbaceous flavors. I opened a delicious 2001 Librandi Cir Duca San Felice Riserva -- a wine made from an obscure grape called gaglioppo that's native to Calabria, the region from which the recipe hails. The combination was perfect.
Now, you might think that you'd have to know a lot about wine to make this pairing, but that's not entirely accurate.
Regional cuisines throughout Europe were developed over centuries, and local cooks created dishes that paired well with the local wines. For most, it was actually the wine made in their own cellars from grapes grown on their own vines. So it's no surprise that a traditional Calabrian wine goes well with a traditional Calabrian recipe: They were literally made for each other.
The same is true of cuisines from other places. Traditional reds from the Rhone Valley, for example, often show aromas and flavors of herbs and black olives, while many of the local dishes showcase these very ingredients.
Unfortunately, these distinctive wines that pair so beautifully with interesting food can be hard to find. Storeowners stock products that people buy -- California Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. You'll also easily find wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Australia, Argentina and Chile, but many of these are made from the same grapes, and in the same "consumer-friendly" style (full-bodied, oak-aged, lots of upfront fruit, lower acidity), as their California counterparts. So there's really not a lot of "choice" even when there are lots of bottles on the shelf.
Unless people demand real choices, things won't change. So break the cycle: Find an interesting recipe on the Internet from somewhere in France, Spain or Italy. Then tell the staff at your favorite wine shop what you're doing; they'll be excited to help you find a perfect match from the same place -- a Vacqueyras, a Bierzo ... maybe even a Cir.
Contact Michael Schiaparelli: Michael(at)cincinnatuswine.com