Wine — Wine Works With Red Sauce

A saucy tale of wine and tomatoes - Wine works with red sauce, if you pick the right one

By Tim Protzman

Ever try to buy a pound of coffee? It used to be that you could get a full pound, 16 ounces in one of those round cans. Now it’s 13 ounces, or even 10! Good luck finding a pound.

And what’s up with tomato sauce? I know I sound like that cranky old guy on 60 Minutes, but I just wanted a large jar of sauce because I was asked to bring a tray of baked ziti to my church supper. It’s the curse of having a last name that begins with a letter betwwen M and Z. All the “A”s through “L”s get to bring a salad or a dessert. We “M”s through “Z”s always get saddled with bringing a covered dish.

Oh, I suppose they could alternate and the “M”s through “Z”s could get the salad or dessert part, but my church is pretty unorganized, so they stick to the old axiom.

Anyway, I went to get a jar of spaghetti sauce. Nothing pretentious like the $7.99 jar of Rao’s Homemade, from the famous East Harlem eatery where even Madonna isn’t guaranteed a table; just a plain jar of Prego or Ragu. There was a good 10 feet of shelf space devoted to spaghetti sauce, but in New Cuisine America plain isn’t good enough anymore.

Now I should be happy that we’ve reached a culinary awareness level at which we can appreciate the nuances of roasted garlic and spicy pepper. Or that we have so many choices when it comes to our pasta. But I would like things simpler. Rather than just grab and go, I was forced to ponder the subtleties of beef and red wine, fresh basil and pecorino cheese and roasted woodchuck and shaved black truffle before finding a jar labeled “Traditional,” on the bottom shelf, well below eye level. Am I a party pooper or just overburdened by the amount of decisions one needs to make in the course of a day?

The best tomato sauce I ever had was made by a 92-year-old woman. She was an insurance client and she grew her own tomatoes. Then she finely chopped them into the consistency of tomato juice on an ancient maple wood board, covered it with cheesecloth and let it dry in the sun. This was her base, a fresh homemade paste. She added spices, oil and a small clove of garlic and simmered for a few hours. It was delicious. She’d learned it from her mother in an era when the men went off to work at dawn and the woman went off to the market. My client remembered it wasn’t uncommon for the ladies to attend morning Mass carrying live chickens in wicker baskets, which, once home, would become lunch. And they had one kind of sauce!

When you combine the wrong wine with tomato sauce bad things can happen. A highly tannic wine and an acidic sauce will strip the skin from the inside of your mouth in a paroxysm of puckering. A white wine will taste bitter and leaden. If the sauce is hot and spicy, the alcohol will come through and the wine will taste medicinal.

Through trial and error and traditional suggestions I found that zinfandel, syrah, sangiovese, barbera, petite sirah and pinot grigio (if one must drink white) go well with tomato sauce.

The sangiovese and barbera are no-brainers. They originated in Italy and the sauce and the wine have a history together. A peppery, rich zinfandel will bring out the zing in a sauce especially if it has meat, meatballs or sausage. Petite sirah is a Californian warm-weather grape with just enough backbone to perk up the sauce’s sweet side and the pinot grigio actually goes better with tomato sauce side dishes like salad, but is nice with lasagna, stuffed shells and meatball or eggplant subs where it gets to match the flavors of the bread and cheeses.

Be careful with shiraz, though. Any Californian or Australian is fine, but the Northern Rhone powerhouses like Hermitage, St Joseph, and Cote Rotie tend to be too smoky and peaty to pair well with tomato sauce, even though they’re mostly, if not entirely syrah. The Southern Rhone wines, which tend to be a syrah/grenache blend, are fine. And the good news is they’re less expensive.

Here are some spaghetti-sauce-friendly wines that will perk up your traditional, homemade or organic-Vidalia-onion-and-smoked-veal-cheeks red sauces.


Bogle Petit Sirah- $11.99, Central Coast. Fruity and light.

Gallo Sangiovese - $13.99, Sonoma. Just like Papa’s homemade.

Qupe Syrah - $15.99, Central Coast. Great price, great wine.

Joseph Phelps Le Mistral- $19.99, Rhone style from Sonoma and Mendocino.

Robert Mondavi Famigla Pinot Grigio - $16.99. A heartier New World take on an Italian favorite.

St Francis Old Vines Zinfandel - $14.99. A little too good for jarred sauce.


Nugan Shiraz - $12.99. Light and easy drinking, from a family-owned vineyard.

D’Arenberg Footbolt Shiraz - $18.99. Deep and profound, goes well with Bolognese sauce or even spicy chili.


Domaine Deydier Chateauneuf-du-Pape- $25.99. Light enough to complement the greasiest pizza.

Delas Freres Cotes du Rhone - $11.99. A nice everyday wine that’s great with pasta or stew.


Melini Laborel Chianti Classico - $15.99. From the heart of Tuscany’s Chianti region. Mostly sangiovese with some canaiolo grapes.

Feudi Arancio Nero D’Avola - $7.99. The hot new grape from Sicily, nero d’avola with a shiraz/zinfandel taste.

Prunotto Barbera D’Asti Fiulot - $14.99. You’ll swear you’re in Florence.

Gabbiano Chianti - $8.99. Very good wine with a nice label.

Lagaria Pinot Grigio - $10.99. From the Venezie region. Light, lemony and a touch of effervescence.

Find your wine

The New Hampshire Liquor Commission can help you find your wine with a click or two. Just go to, type the name of your wine into the product locator and click “go.” The site’s search engine will come up with a list of stores that carry the bottle you seek.

—Tim Protzman

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