Wine with Tomatoes!

Tis the season to pair the acidity of tomatoes with the acidity in wine.

Whenever I host wine tastings I take guests through a series of three sips, or tastes. The first sip is to simply clear the palate by way of a toast: “Cheers to what we professional tasters call ‘the rinse!’” For the second sip, it’s a little different: Take a sip, but don’t swallow; instead let’s swish it around and when I give the ‘down the hatch’ signal (pointing my thumb over my shoulder), swallow and let’s talk about what happens. Immediately we’ll feel the surge of saliva come pouring in along the space between our cheeks and our lower gums, then feel a tingle up the sides of our cheeks, and eventually a little tightening along the roof of our mouths. This is the battle between fruit and acid, as we continually salivate and then acid wicks it dry. At this point I’ll ask who likes the wine on the second sip? For those who aren’t sure, I ask them to bear with me as we add ‘fat + salt’ to the equation, by way of anything savory, such as a taste of cheese, charcuterie, or even as simple as a potato chip.

Then we all take a third sip the same way as the second, swallowing after a few swishes around or mouths. This time I ask everyone where all that saliva went? It’s usually not pouring down along our gum lines, but rather, it’s under our tongues now, pooling over and over and over. The acid found what it wanted: Fat. And our perception of the acidity in the wine changes; it seems more mellow, more expansive, less aggressive. This isn’t rocket science. And it’s always fun.

“This is the battle between fruit and acid, as we continually salivate and then acid wicks it dry.”

My editor at Food & Wine, Ray Isle, and I were talking about acidity recently, specifically in the context of pairing wine with tomatoes. Ray knows that I’m, to put it lightly, completely obsessed with tomatoes. For context, I come from a tomato sauce-obsessed famiglia. I grew up on the West Side of Jersey City, and every August we canned thousands of jars of passata di pomodoro—tomato purée—in our row house basement, and we still do it every summer in my in-laws’ basement across town (more here!). We use this sauce all year for various pasta sauces, as well as for soups like pasta e fagioli and braises, like meaty stews or to poach frutti di mare with fennel. And then there’s pizza. In our Napolitano household, homemade pizza means pizza fritta: fried pizza dough topped with tomato sauce imbued with olive oil, garlic, salt and
dried oregano, then mozzarella, a splash of EVOO, a pinch of dried oregano, then baked. (You’re welcome!)

“… pairing wine with tomato sauce is an exercise in matching acidity with acidity first ….”

If all of this is making you hungry, it should also be making you thirsty! Which raises the question my editor put to me: What to pair with tomato sauce? IMHO, pairing wine with tomato sauce is an exercise in matching acidity with acidity first, then accounting for sweetness and depth, depending on how the sauce is used. In general, raw tomatoes tend to be high in acidity, but cooking them softens their acidity and heightens their sweetness. This opens the doors of wine pairing possibilities pretty wide, but I’d categorically exclude tannic, full-bodied, oaky reds (no disrespect to Cabernet and Bordeaux blends) because the acidity in the sauce will clash with tannins. If we’re staying ‘on brand’ with Italian wines, I love the versatility of fruity, low tannin/high acid Barbera (and slightly less acidic Dolcetto) from Piedmont; cool climate Teroldego, Pinot Nero and Schiava from Alto Adige; earthy/spicy Chianti Classico (hold the fava beans) from Tuscany; and from Sicily the dazzling, rustic-yet-elegant reds of Mount Etna made with Nerello Mascalese. Beyond the motherland, you can always depend on juicy Pinot Noir in general, as well as practically everything Rhône related, namely the so-called GSM grapes: Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

All of that said, another thing I always say during my wine tastings is to trust your own palates because, ultimately, you are the expert of your own tastes. I can’t tell you what temperature to eat your steak or burger (rare for me!), how much dressing to add to your salad (start with two tablespoons per person!), or what toppings to put on your bagel (smoked trout for me!). But as long as you remember to try the wine at least twice, if not three times, before deciding whether or not you like it, you’ll be giving yourself—as well as the wine and the food—a proper chance to make an informed decision.

Anthony Giglio is the Wine Director for the American Express Centurion Global Lounge Network, a longtime Contributing Editor to Food & Wine Magazine, and the creator of Side Gig SUPERSALT. Follow him @anthonygiglio.