Italian White Wines and Harold McGee's Octopus Recipe

Wine Pairings

After savoring the succulence of perfectly cooked octopus in Greece and Spain, cooking octopus has been on my to-do list, as I wanted to have some wine-pairing fun. I am an amateur cook that will attempt almost anything, but somehow the octopus challenge remained on the to-do list for quite a while. Until January 2010, when accidentally (or should I say serendipitously), I bought two whole, raw octopi!
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Early January I headed to London for my wine studies. As usual, I made my big Fresh Direct order of all the household goods that my husband and child might need while I was away. The night before leaving, Fresh Direct duly arrived. Imagine my surprise, as my husband unpacked, to find not just one, but two whole raw octopus (4 pounds of octopus). First reaction was that my order got mixed up, but no, somehow, even though I did not buy any other fish, I seem to have unknown to myself, wandered into the fish section of the site and put the octopus in my shopping basket.

As I was leaving for a week, my husband’s first reaction was to dump them. "No," I protested, "Let’s put them in the freezer and I will deal with them on my return."

While I had a vague idea of how to cook octopus, I found that the more recipes I read, the less inspired I became, fearing a chewy, rubbery result.

Shortly after my return, we had decided to have friends over for dinner, as I had a bunch of Italian white wines that I wanted to taste. Home alone studying the morning of the dinner party, I thought to myself, "It is now or never!" I had already defrosted, beheaded and cleaned the beasts. I ferociously surfed the internet looking for inspiration when I came across a New York Times article by Harold McGee (March 2008), titled 'To Cook an Octopus: Forget the Cork, Add Science', which detailed his long quest to replicate the tender taste experienced years before in Greece.

First it seems that the 'vacation' in the freezer was a good thing, as apparently it helps tenderize octopus. Forget the brining, boiling or simmering wrote Harold. Instead he recommended blanching the octopus for 30 seconds in boiling water, then cooking it in a dry, covered pot in the over at 200 degrees F, for four to five hours. I was a bit wary of the ‘dry pot’ thing, fearing a dried out blob stuck to the bottom of the pot. But of course, octopus flesh is mainly water, which is released by heat.

Five hours later, I cautiously opened the over and lifted the lid – there lay my perfect, pink, tender octopus. Now we could have some wine pairing fun.

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While I could easily have played it safe and chosen a Rías Baixas Albariño or an Assyrtiko from Santorini, wines that I knew from experience would pair beautifully, I wanted to have some fun and try something new. So, I decided to focus on the regional white wines of Italy. Italian white wines are very underrated. Apart from the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio, many are made from local varieties, which are not so well known, such as Arneis, Cortese, Fiano, Falangino, Garganega, Greco and Verdicchio to name but a few

The Italians have a wealth of indigenous white grape varieties that produce, an array of light to medium-bodied, extremely food-friendly wines. Most of these wines have fairly high to crisp acidity, which was a good start for the octopus. While each variety is distinctive, aromas tend to be delicate with citrus, floral and almond notes. Many express a lovely earthy minerality.

Meanwhile, I had pounded together some olive oil, garlic, and Spanish paprika to drizzle over the octopus. While I certainly had a favorite, it would be unfair to say that any wine did not pair well. Our friends had fun, tasting through the wines and savoring what I have to say was pretty good octopus. Here is what we tasted.

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White Wines from Italy

2008 Beneventano Greco di Tufo, Cantina del Taburno, IGT Beneventano, Campania, $18 – Made from the Greco grape variety – an ancient variety that is said to date back to the days of Pompeii and takes its name from the early Greek settlers. Refreshing acidity, lemony, almond notes, quite good texture and pronounced earthy minerality. It was a favorite among the group.

2008 Casa d'Ambra Ischia Bianco, DOC Ischia Bianco, Campania $14 - Ischia is an island in the Bay of Naples. Made from Biancolella and Forastera – rare local varieties Straw lemon color. Very minerally, delicate but persistent aromas of citrus, white-flowers and stone fruit. Slight salty note on the finish that worked really well. And this wine is only 11.5% in alcohol.

2008 Gavi La Battistina, DOCG Gavi, Piedmont $17 – Made from the Cortese grape variety. Crisp acidity, fairly light-bodied, delicate lemony, tangerine and almond aromas and flavors with a tangy-spicy kick on the finish. Another group favorite with the octopus.

2007 Luigi Maffini, Kratos 'Paestum' Fiano, IGT Kratos, Campania, $20 – Made from the Fiano variety, which while not as aromatic as Greco, has a delightful slightly waxy texture, crisp acidity and subtle honeysuckle and citrus aromas. Fuller-bodied than Greco. This was one of my favorites.

2007 Aspirino – The Intrepid Wine Company, Aspirino d’Aversa DOC (Campania), $13 – Made from the rare local variety Aspirini, which is somehow related to Greco. This was indeed different. Quite a deep gold color. Very funky and earthy with flavors of peach cobbler, baked apples and stone fruit and intriguing oxidative and herbal notes. It wasn’t a favorite but everyone declared it different and interesting.

2007 Ferruccio Deiana, Donnikalia Vermentino di Sardegna, DOC Vermentino di Sardegna, Sardinia, $12 – Made from Vermentino (called Rolle in France). I was quite impressed with this wine, as it was richer, and more textured than I expected. Quite ripe peachy, nectarine flavors with hints of honey and lemon. Quite polished.

2007 Andre Felici Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, Classico Superiore, DOC Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi (Marches), $14 - Very minerally, subtle grapefruit, clementine, dried hay and hawthorn aromas. Crisp and refreshing with an earthy finish. Another favorite that worked well with the octopus.

2008 Falanghina Taburno, Fattoria La Rivolta DOC Falangina Taburno (Campania), $15 – Made from the Falanghina grape. The wine has great racy acidity, ripe tropical fruit, lots of subtle spice. One of my firm favorites.

These are just a few of the many interesting white wines that Italy has to offer. Don’t be put off by the strange grape varieties. Have some fun!

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She hold the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

Related: How To Choose Good Cheap Wine from the Big Brands: Pinot Grigio

(Images: Mary Gorman-McAdams)

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.

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