The Roman poets Ovid and Virgil extolled its virtues as an aphrodisiac two millennia ago, but this brash green known as rucola in Italy and rocket among non-U.S. English speakers is a relative newcomer to American palates.
Although arugula was brought to America by early European immigrants, it wasn’t until the 1990s that it gained culinary popularity. Added judiciously among lettuces in salad, it lends so much peppery personality that salad dressing is hardly needed, but it is revelatory when cooked. Try it stir-fried as you would spinach or chard, or even tucked into grilled cheese or a tuna melt. Choose a wine that won’t compete but will instead play with whatever side of arugula’s character you prefer.
The hallmark of arugula is a peppery spice, much like watercress. Carmenère is a grape that originated in Bordeaux but found its spiritual home in Chile, where it makes wines with notes of peppercorn and green chilies. It’s a fun, bold pairing that proves red wine can go with salad.
Arugula’s pungency is different from its spice, akin to mustard or garlic, and can sometimes register as bitter. Instead of trying to drown it out with a fruit bomb, opt for something with some funk of its own. Col Fondo Prosecco is a bottle-fermented sparkling wine aged on its lees and has both richness and bracing acidity.
Like most greens, arugula has a grassy quality that is more herbal than vegetal. Sauvignon Blanc is always a safe pairing with greens, arugula included. Even better, however, is Grüner Veltliner, which shares Sauvignon Blanc’s crisp and herbaceous qualities but adds an arugula-friendly undertone of white pepper.
Small, young arugula leaves (often sold as “baby arugula”) can favor citric freshness over bitterness and spice. Pairing with a wine that shares citrus notes brings harmony while teasing out other complexities. Picpoul offers lemony clarity with herbs and nuts, like a terrific salad dressing.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!