Here's a question to ponder on a steamy summer morning: Is a tomato a vegetable, or is it a fruit? Contrary to what seems obvious to most of us, pedants insist that the tomato is a fruit because, botanically speaking, it develops from the ovary at the base of its flower and contains the seeds of the plant. "Vegetables" are other edible parts of plants such as leaves, stalks or tubers ... or so the botanists say.
But cooks - and most everybody else - know that the tomato is a vegetable because, well, we eat it in salads and savory dishes, not ... usually ... for dessert.
Most of us, actually, don't worry much about this definition. We simply enjoy the luscious tomato, and never more than at this time of year, the peak of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, when just about everybody can get their hands on a ripe, juicy and tart-sweet specimen at the peak of seasonal perfection.
Picked straight from the plant, still warm from the garden, it's hard to beat a fresh tomato <i>au naturel</i>, maybe with just a sprinkle of salt to perfect it. When you're eating a tomato out of hand like an apple, there's not much call for a glass of wine.
But bring it to the dinner table, and the obvious question arises: When the tomato is the star of the bill of fare, or at least a strong supporting player, what's the best wine to serve?
At the risk of sounding like a cliché, it's hard to beat Chianti (and other Sangiovese-based wines) for cooked tomato dishes, not excepting the classic spaghetti and meatballs or pepperoni pizza. Chianti, after all, became the default choice with these Italian-style dishes for a reason: Its combination of relatively subtle fruit flavors with crisp, snappy acidity makes a natural partner with the similar flavor profile of fresh tomatoes. I <i>told</i> you it was a fruit!
Although the Chianti rule of thumb relates to tomato-based sauces, long-simmered and sweet, I find that the same principles apply with fresh tomato dishes as well, and none better than <i>caprese</i>, the summery Italian salad of thick-sliced fresh tomatoes, fresh leaves of basil and rounds of fresh mozzarella. This works particularly well, in my opinion, because the fresh herb scents of the basil pick up similar characteristics in the Chianti, and the creamy mozzarella rounds out the dish in wine-friendly fashion.
Indeed, fresh tomatoes and simple Chianti are natural pals in almost any combination. Alternatively, although the grapes are completely different, a similar equation works with the warm Provencal flavors of Cotes-du-Rhone reds and other Grenache, Syrah or Mourvedre wines and blends from the Southern Rhone and Provence.
For today, though, I'm sticking with Italy, and better still, in honor of a Tuscan wine-judging trip I'll be taking to Siena in October, a fine young Chianti Colli Senesi ("Chianti from the Siena hills"). Enjoy it with <i>caprese</i> or enjoy it with red-sauced spaghetti; it's a fine introduction to the loving affinity between these wines and this fruit. Or vegetable.
<table border="0" align="right" width="135"><tr><td><img src="http://www.wineloverspage.com/graphics1/panc0725.jpg" border="1" align="right"></td></tr></table>Fattoria di Pancole 2004 Chianti Colli Senesi ($12.99)
Clear, very dark garnet. Black cherries and subtle spice on the nose, juicy fruit and snappy acidity in the flavor; fresh-fruit acidity and soft tannins in a long finish. Just about a perfect model of fresh, straightforward Chianti. U.S. importer: Five Star Fine Imports Ltd., Plainview, N.Y. (July 25, 2006)
<B>FOOD MATCH:</b> Characteristic Chianti, made for red meat; its fresh acidity and fruit makes it a natural with snappy, tomato-based pasta dishes or, as noted, a <i>caprese</i> salad or just about anything made with fresh summer tomatoes and basil.
<B>VALUE:</B> Reasonably priced by current standards, but shop carefully, as it's available in some regions for $10 or so.
<B>WHEN TO DRINK:</B> It's made for immediate enjoyment, but won't fade appreciably for a year or two on the wine rack.
<b>Chianti Colli Senesi</b> = "<i>Kee-AHN-tee Coh-lee Seh-nay-zee</i>"
The Fattoria di Pancole Website
offers a choice of Italian or English, with some pages also in German. It provides brief information about the company's wines, grappa, olive oil and accommodations at the winery.
<B>FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:</B>
Look up prices and locate sources for Fattoria di Pancole Chianti on Wine-Searcher.com