It’s high season for tomatoes, that short but intense period when locally grown tomatoes seem to be everywhere: Farm stands, supermarkets, back-yard vines. One bite into a juicy, ripe sun-warmed tomato and you recognize once more what all the fuss is about after spending months dodging those wan, rock-hard “tomatoes” sold or served out-of-season.
A fresh, vine-ripened tomato deserves to be showcased at the table with, at least, a sprinkling of good salt and, at most, a piece or two of mozzarella, basil sprigs and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. And, to make it even more celebratory, be sure to pour some wine even though there’s a challenge in finding one that will work with the lively, mouth-filling flavor tomatoes bring to the table.
Marcus Will, sommelier at Va Pensiero in Evanston, said that the tart acidity of fresh tomatoes demands a wine equally electric or the wine will end up tasting flat.
“Move to a sauvignon blanc that’s zippy and slightly racy,” he said.
Will is not alone in recommending sauvignon blanc. It is the tomato wine of choice for Efrain Madrigal, wine director of Sam’s Wines & Spirits. He suggested the “especially herby” sauvignon blancs from France’s Loire and Bordeaux regions.
“To me, these wines have an herby, almost tomato leaflike note that works well with uncooked tomatoes,” he said.
Natalie MacLean, the Canadian wine writer, also points to sauvignon blanc on her Web site, Nat Decants (nataliemaclean.com). But there are other wines, both red and white, that can work with tomatoes, such as an Italian barbera, because of their acidity.
“When tomatoes are cooked in a multi-ingredient dish or in a sauce, such as ratatouille or marinara, they’re less harsh and their acid edge is softened,” she noted in an e-mail interview. “With these dishes, you can try other juicy Italian reds, such as Valpolicella, sangiovese and dolcetto. They all have complementary ripe red fruit aromas, a touch of spice and a mouth-awakening acidity.”
MacLean said pinot noirs from such cool climate regions as Burgundy, New Zealand and Oregon have a tartness to hold up to tomatoes. But warm-climate pinots, such as those from California and Australia, are “too ripe and flabby to hold their own,” she said.
Tom Benezra of Sal’s Beverage World stores also recommended Italian reds, including Chianti and barbera.
“Rarely does one sit down to a meal of wine and fresh tomatoes alone,” he said. “In summer, plain fresh tomatoes make a terrific side dish to grilled beef and lamb, so [those] red wines will work well.”
But Benezra doesn’t go with sauvignon blanc. He doesn’t think New Zealand sauvignon blanc has “enough structure” to stand up to the “robust acidity” of a fresh tomato. As for the French sauvignons like Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, Benezra said they “often show flinty minerality … which does not do tomatoes any favors.”
His choice then? Gruner veltliner from Austria.
“This green wine has a steel structure which readily stands up to a juicy tomato while not competing with its flavors,” he said.
He also favors fruity wines like a French Vouvray, made with chenin blanc grapes. He also said dry fino and manzanilla sherries with “their zesty, salty smell … are a natural match with more strongly flavored fresh tomato dishes such as tomatoes with vinaigrette or gazpacho.”
In their book, “What to Drink with What You Eat,” authors Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg recommend a number of wines for tomatoes in their various forms: Pour a rose with raw tomatoes, a Spanish albarino for tomato confit, sangiovese and barbera for cooked tomatoes, and so on.
They also quote Brian Duncan, wine director of Chicago’s Bin 36 restaurant. Serve a gewurztraminer with a platter of differently colored tomato slices sprinkled with olive oil, sea salt and basil and, he predicted, “People will think you are a rock star!”
Duncan told the authors that pairing raw tomatoes with the fruity, high-acid German wine would make it seem like you were tasting a tomato “for the very first time.”
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A fresh approach
The Good Eating wine tasting panel sampled one Austrian white, two French whites and three Italian reds to discover which worked best with tomatoes purchased at Chicago’s Green City Market. As always in these informal blind tastings, the score reflects how well the wine matches up with the food.
2005 Domaine de Bel Air Pouilly Fume
This sauvignon blanc from France’s Loire Valley perfectly matched the mouth-feel of the tomatoes. Elegant, with notes of grapefruit and anise, this white wine made the tomato taste even fresher.
(3 corkscrews) $20
2004 Villa Giada Barbera d’Asti Ajan
Aromatic, with notes of spice, clove and black pepper, this Italian red tasted of dark fruit, earth and tomato leaf. The wine highlighted the tomato’s natural sweetness.
(2 corkscrews) $19
2005 Gustave Lorentz
This Alsatian white was better poured on its own. The oily richness of wine got lost amid the tomato’s flavors.
(2 corkscrews) $15
2004 Gobelsburger Gruner Veltliner
From Austria, this white offered butterscotch notes offset by a zesty acidity. Most tasters thought the wine overwhelmed the tomato.
(2 corkscrews) $15
2004 Ruffino Chianti Superiore Il Leo
A rich, smoky Italian red with plump fruit flavors underscored by notes of earth. Most tasters thought the wine did not improve when matched with the tomato.
(1 corkscrew) $14
2005 Poderi Luigi Einaudi Dolcetto di Dogliani
An Italian red with a very low profile, this wine’s unassuming berry flavors almost disappeared when paired with the tomato’s vitality.
(1 corkscrew) $16
Sources: These wines may or may not be in stock at your local store; inquire first. At least one of these wines was found at these stores: Binny’s Beverage Depot stores, Fox & Obel, Schaefer’s in Skokie, The Wine Cellar in Palatine, Randall & Vine Wine Shoppe in Algonquin, DiCarlo Fine Wine & Spirits in Mundelein, Tannins in Elmhurst. Prices may vary from store to store. Prices are rounded off.
(4 corkscrews) Excellent (3 corkscrews) Very good (2 corkscrews) Good (1 corkscrew) Fair (No corkscrews) Poor