This summer I’m celebrating tomatoes—because we have them. Here on the West Coast, where late blight fungus has not yet appeared, farmers’ markets are positively brimming with tantalizing, plump fruit. Slice, dress lightly, and serve: Tomatoes are a simple dish to prepare, but pairing wines with them is not so easy. I’m surprised at how often I’m served tomato salads and wines that just don’t work together.
The key to tomatoes is acidity—and, at this time of year, they’re often high acid and high sugar. Plus, the tomato’s ascorbic bite is often compounded by the acetic acid in a vinaigrette. Fire must be fought with fire: In wine it’s a general rule that high acidity in a dish must be met with higher acidity in the wine. So clearly that takes us first into the realm of white wines. Let’s start at the top of the acid chain. I particularly love sparkling wine—Champagne, Prosecco, or cava—with tomatoes. Without question, it’s the perfect pairing with gazpacho (it matches the acidity but offers a nice contrast in texture). But it’s also great with sliced tomatoes. Consider an austere beauty like H. Billiot Fils Rosé, which is a “grower” Champagne (i.e., it’s made by the same people who grow the grapes) from the village of Ambonnay. This is a Pinot Noir–based wine whose tremendous grace is countered by a very firm structure, making it perfect for the soft flesh of ripe tomatoes.
If the tomatoes are exceptionally sweet, you might want to go with a wine that has a touch of sugar on the finish. This is where Riesling from Germany and Grüner Veltliner from Austria come into play. Even these so-called “dry” wines have a bit of residual sugar to balance out the high acidity. With German Riesling look for the lighter style called Kabinett, because the wines get sweeter as they get richer. Grüner Veltliner’s tight mineral-herbal edge makes it perfect for tomatoes and mozzarella with basil. Even a relatively inexpensive Grüner like the Hiedler will make an admirable match.
Tomatoes are also fleshy beasts, so wines with a little girth work well, as long as they have a taught spine of acid. Look at Pinot Grigio from the Alto Adige or Friuli regions of northern Italy. A punchy yet complex Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand like Seresin likewise fits the bill. Farther afield, interesting white varieties like Assyrtiko from Greece, Verdejo from Spain, Vermentino from Sardinia, and Falanghina from southern Italy are medium-bodied with good weight and acidity.
As for red wines, stick to the classics from tomato-eating cultures. That is, high-acid reds like Chianti, Nebbiolo, or Barbera from northern Italy, Pinot Noir from Burgundy or the Loire (Sancerre Rouge is a summertime favorite), and the great wines of Beaujolais. Particularly for the Italian wines, though, ask your retailer for ones made more in the traditional style. Many Chiantis these days go for a richer, more international profile that favors the lower acidity, higher sweetness, and prominent oak that are enemies of tomato pairing.
What wines often fail to work with tomatoes? Many Chardonnays fall flat. It’s not just a question of acid, but also of flavors: The stone fruits and cream that come up in Chardonnay simply don’t scream for tomatoes. Also watch out for rosés, which can be so tempting with tomatoes because of the color compatibility. But many rosés (particularly new-world versions) are flabby with alcohol and low acidity, and will make your fresh, crisp summer tomatoes seem limp and mealy. And that is a crime against not only the wine and the tomatoes, but also against summer itself.