Swipe Right for Spaghetti Carbonara’s Wine Match
These lively Italian whites have true pairing potential
I never got to try out dating apps. Coming up on 15 years of marriage this year, Tinder was just a flammable material when I met Jono.
Even back then, our spaghetti carbonara game was strong. A love of food fueled our relationship, and we hopped around restaurants in Rome and New York, comparing carbonara renditions. At home, we started experimenting with the recipe ourselves.
For the uninitiated, spaghetti carbonara is one of the world’s perfect foods. It’s a simple recipe: Spaghetti is tossed in a cheesy, yolk-enriched egg sauce, studded with smoky pork. But it requires a dance of timing and temperature to get just right. When all the elements come together, alchemy happens: The reward is an ecstasy-inducing meal.
Over the years, we’ve tried all sorts of variations. We’ve tested different cheese blends — from parmesan to pecorino to a mixture of the two. We’ve substituted bucatini and fettuccine. We’ve moved through phases of cured meat, comparing guanciale, pancetta, and bacon. We’ve also played around with non-traditional ingredients like cream, peas, and lemon zest (swipe left to all).
The appeal of the dish, beyond its deliciousness, is that it’s a crowd-pleasing meal made from fridge and pantry staples, and whipped up in less than 30 minutes. Our recipe is very similar to this New York Times version, except that we cut our pancetta into lardons and scale up the cheese. Our kids love it, as do we.
Once we landed on a “house” recipe, I knew it was time to start looking for a perfect wine pairing.
Anatomy of a Perfect Carbonara Wine
I’ve tried spaghetti carbonara with dozens of wines, from Pinot Noir and Sangiovese to Chardonnay and Viognier. To be fair, they were all decent; Carbonara is compatible with a lot of wines. But none were quite right. So, in dating app parlance, I ghosted them.
I knew there must be a perfect match out there.
My focus shifted to reds and whites from Italy, spaghetti carbonara’s motherland. Italy is rich in native grape varieties. By some estimates, there are more than 1,000 different grapes growing in the country, and many of them are found nowhere else in the world. That seemed promising.
I tasted through lighter bodied Italian reds. These were pretty good, but not an exact fit. Tannins kept getting in the way of that creamy sauce. And I tasted through some lighter-bodied whites, but the weight was a mismatch. These all got the slow fade.
Ultimately, I found a match: The best pairings were Italian whites with lively acidity, complex flavors, and a fuller body.
How can one reliably find these wines? Italian wine labeling is confusing, even for the experts. As a shortcut, look for these words on the front or back label:
Frascati — A dry, lively blend made from a Malvasia variant, often mixed with Trebbiano or other grapes native to Lazio. (For bottles with character, look for Frascati Superiore. These are DOCG wines held to higher production standards, and they tend to have more flavor, texture, and weight.)
Pecorino — A dry, minerally white wine made from the indigenous Pecorino grape (no relation to the cheese), with floral, fruit, and herbal notes. Offida Pecorino DOCG is the theoretical highest expression, in the Marche region, though the grape is used in other areas.
Verdicchio — Hailing from the Marche region, the Verdicchio grape makes dry, high acid whites with bright citrus and herbal flavors.
Sicilia — Salty whites are one of my wine obsessions, and many Sicilian whites deliver on that front, since they’re grown on volcanic soils that impart that character. These wines also tend to have some weight, given the warmth of the region. Look for Sicilia DOC, Terre Siciliane IGT, or Etna DOC on the label.
Here’s why these wines work so well with carbonara: First, the acid. Wines with high acid levels cut through a cheesy sauce, cleansing one’s palate between sips. Then, that flavor complexity. Flavors like fennel, wild herbs, and brininess add to the experience, making the food pairing more than the sum of its parts. Finally, the weight. Medium- to heavy-bodied wines match the richness of spaghetti carbonara.
In the end, my “SuperSwipe” wines were more a style than a specific region or variety. But fortunately, food and wine pairing does not require monogamy. These bottles have now slid into my regular online orders, and I consider them all keepers.
Four Bottles to Try with Carbonara
If you’re in a shop and can’t locate one of these labels, no problem: Tell the shopkeeper you’re looking for an Italian white using one of the terms above.
If you’ve ever been to Rome, Frascati is likely the quaffable white you were served by the glass at a trattoria. Many versions are forgettable, but Casale Marchese’s wines are an exception. This is a historic, organic producer making benchmark Frascati in Lazio. They only make Frascati Superiore DOCG (a stricter, theoretically higher-quality wine). This wine is juicy and refreshing, led by lemon zest and yellow apples. It has a medium body with a stony texture and pleasant, herbal bitterness that gives complexity.
From an organic producer in the Marche region, this is a lively, fuller bodied white with a sleekness and polish to it. I love this wine’s flavor purity — fresh fennel and ripe apple hit you immediately, and evolve into lemony, herbal notes on the palate. It’s an excellent, everyday value.
Exceptional value. This is tough to find, but one of my favorite organic, everyday drinkers. Nearly everywhere I looked it was sold out (including where I bought it, at Riverview Wine), but its worthy of a search in your area. I’ve tasted several vintages and they’re all fantastic. The 2019 is a juicy wine with intense aromas — white flowers, peach, pineapple — that evolve into flavors of fresh straw, ripe pear, and ginger spice. Delicious.
This organic and biodynamic wine is made in Sicily from Insolia and Zibibbo grapes. Interestingly, Insolia is an ingredient in the iconic fortified wine Marsala, and Zibibbo is used in other fortified wines. However, it turns out that the grapes make pretty delicious non-fortified wines, as well. This one is lively and textural, with grapefruit zest, ripe peach, and dried herb notes, enhanced by saline and chalky minerality.