The end of October signifies a number of things. Halloween is once again approaching, the sun is in Scorpio, Indian summer is over while fall has undoubtedly set on the Bay Area, and white truffles, those precious, rock-shaped fungi, are back in season.
Piedmont in Italy is considered the mecca of the truffle world. While pigs have an innate ability to discover truffles with their upturned snouts, they tend to enjoy the taste as much as humans, so trained dogs, usually the cute Lagotto Romagnolo breed, are tasked with sniffing them out of the ground. White truffles are also found in other regions of northern and central Italy, and nooks of the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia, Slovenia and southeastern France.
Given their pungency, you don't need a lot to make a truffle's presence in a dish known. Many restaurants will offer to shave them onto pasta or risotto for a surcharge. While the price of white truffles is down from last year to about $1,000 a pound, that is still a pretty penny to pay for a flavor accent, no matter how seasonal or exotic it may be.
If you are going to spring for white truffles, at home or dining out, you might as well enhance it with your wine selection. Barolo and Barbaresco, among Piedmont's finest reds, are the go-to wines. Beyond sharing the same terroir, they often have mushroomlike, if not trufflelike, flavors.
The same can sometimes be said of the wines from Burgundy, especially the reds from the Cote de Nuits and whites from Meursault. Reasonably, you might think that if you are going to splurge on truffles you might as well go all the way and choose a wine of the highest pedigree. However, if the truffle selection is breaking the bank, you can still find some well-priced wines that could make a splendid match.
Aglianico is sometimes called the "nebbiolo of the south." Grown in Campania and Basilicata, as far away from Piedmont as you can get while still staying on mainland Italy, aglianico shares nebbiolo's earthy characteristics of tar and various fungi. Try Musto Carmelitano Pian del Moro Aglianico del Vulture, 2010 ($30). Made from 80-year-old certified organic vines, this aglianico tastes like the essence of white truffles. It's a gem -- enough said.
German pinot noir, aka spatburgunder, makes a great alternative to Burgundy. Don't let the lighter color and body fool you, as the acidity and forestlike qualities can make an exquisite match. Rebholz Spätburgunder Trocken, S, Tradition, 2010 ($45) from the Pfalz is arguably as good as many a grand cru Burgundy. With a nose of raw mushrooms, hints of coffee and a pure, searing minerality, this is pinot noir at its finest. For value, look for the Rheingau's 2010 Karl Molitor Spätburgunder Assmannshauser Höllenberg. With hints of coffee and mushrooms, and a slatey minerality that marks the vineyard, it has more on the ball than just about any other pinot noir in this price category ($20).
Instead of a white Burgundy, search out François Cazin's 2010 Cour-Cheverny ($20) from the Loire Valley. Composed of old-vine romorantin, which is related to chardonnay, Cazin created a stellar Meursault substitute here with an almond-hazelnut-fresh-corn character and the acidity to underscore a truffle-infused pasta or fish dish.
A little adventure can go a long way, and experimentation is always a good thing with wine and food pairing. But when you're shelling out for white truffles you may want a little more certainty. Whether you choose a Barolo or Cazin's Cour-Cheverny, all of the wines mentioned here are safe bets.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.