Tomato season is winding down very quickly, and I feel like I have tomatoes on the brain. I've recently noticed that I seem to have a perpetual debate among people that know a thing or 2 about wine, regarding wine and tomatoes. A majority of Americans seem to think of tomatoes as an Italian staple, and therefore automatically look to Italian wines for pairings. This is a hazardous tact, and one that needs needs a bit of discussion.
Italians have only had tomatoes since the 17th century (possibly 16th), the fruit is actually indigenous to South America, and first introduced into Spanish Cuisine about 100 years before Italian. Until 1800, tomato sauce was known as alla spagnuola, "in the Spanish style." Today, India eats 5x as many tomatoes as Italy, which is actually 5th in worldwide consumption. Why do we think of Tomatoes as Italian? Probably because of the "Sunday Gravy", the immigrant version of a Neapolitan peasant dish. Naples was one of the first places in the world to perfect preserving tomatoes, making tomatoes affordable, available year round, and a major ingredient in peasant food throughout Northern Italy in the 19th and 20 centuries.
Unlike, say, Loire, where the best pairings for foods grown there, are from the neighboring vines, tomatoes cultural significance in Italy has more to do with food production and preservation science than natural integration.
So, let's hit the reset button for a second. Tomatoes, Culinarily speaking, end up in 2 forms-cooked and raw. Raw, it is often fresh off the vine with high acidity and sugar. Cooked, the acids turn a touch more bitter, and the sugars become richer and more caramelized. These both pose challenges for pairings. acid +acid is a minefield. wines that lead with acidity are automatically out. Wines that have acid, but are buoyed by minerality, rich (not overwhelming) fruit or a touch of sweetness may work well with fresh tomatoes, and further do well with the the oils, herbs and vinegars we use with the fresh tomatoes. For cooked tomatoes, specifically sauces, high acid reds are typically poor pairings. This can refer to the sour acids, but it also refers to tannins. Both behave similarly in the presence of the sugars and acids in tomato sauce, they become astringent and intolerable. The better tact is to look to low acid reds, of which there are a multitude of choices from Italy, ironically though, not really from the regions of Italy from where tomatoes sauces have become famous.
To bring this full circle, think about where fresh tomatoes have excelled in the last 300 years: Warm, Mediterranean climates. The wines that do well with tomatoes? Also from warm climates: Languedoc, Rhone, Southern Italy, Spain, California are all great places to start. What to avoid? Burgundy, Bordeaux, Piedmont, Tuscany, and Veneto. Total generalizations I know, Dolcetto is pretty decent, and some Barberas are ok too. This is just an exercise to demonstrate how we need to take a fresh look at how we think about some clichéd wine and food pairings.