Food & wine

Thoughts on matching wine with vegetarian cooking

Steve Farrow, our in-house Wine Without Fuss food and wine man, gives his opinion on guidelines for matching wines with veggie cooking

Vegetarian salad

I think there is only one absolute in matching wine with food: only drink wines that you like with your grub. There, that's nice and simple. I mean, how daft would it be to pair a dish with a wine that is its traditional ally if you can't stand the wine? After this cardinal rule is obeyed I think that everything else boils down to guidelines rather than maxims.

So if you love a glass of a muscly malbec with your asparagus and hollandaise sauce who is to say you are wrong? If you think that a chickpea vindaloo is best washed down with a glass or two of elegant, steely Chablis then I say 'more power to your elbow'. I might disagree with you when I reach for my own bottle, but we wine drinkers are a broad church, as The Wine Society's range only serves to illustrate. As long as it makes you happy, that's the main thing.

With that in mind, what I propose here are one or two suggestions, little more than thoughts that you can choose to consider or ignore as you like, for matching wine with vegetarian food.

It seems that some people think that this is a prickly subject, and there are still a few antediluvians out there who think that veggies survive on salads or lentil bakes and nut roasts. A quick butcher's (pardon the phrase!) at any supermarket vegetable selection, spice rack or ready-meal aisle will show you how much variation is available to any food lover, veggie or not.

Add into all of this the number of chefs writing, presenting and blogging recipes for you to seek out and you can see that there is a massive creative palate out there for vegetarians to play with. Actually, matching wine with vegetarian food is not really much thornier than matching it with meat, and being creative will pay dividends. To me, and though I am not a vegetarian I do eat a lot of vegetarian dishes, very similar principles of matching apply whether it is flora or fauna on my plate.

Factors to consider when matching vino with flora

Strength/weight of flavour

When trying to decide what wine to match with what dish you might like to consider a few factors: the overall weight or richness of the dish, the strength of flavours involved, the acidity and/or sweetness, creaminess or fat, and the herbs and spicing.

Seasonality & cooking style

How it is cooked and when in the year you cook it may have an impact too, with spring and winter throwing up potentially different styles of food. So a good rule of thumb is to examine how much the vegetables will be 'transformed' in the dish.

Finding the balance

The less mucked about with the veggies are, the more subtle the wine might need to be. It is very much about finding a balance between the food and the wine. Let's, for example, assume you happen to have a Greek salad on the cards. Personally I wouldn't smother the crunchy fresh cucumber, tangy salty feta, sweet tomatoes and Kalamata olives, oregano, oil and lemon juice with a chunky chocolatey and spicy Barossa shiraz. Conversely, were I to be tucking a napkin into my shirt in anticipation of eating a bowl of Puy lentils braised in stock and red wine with onions and, maybe, chunks of Portobello mushrooms and herbs (and I add a teaspoon of marmite for umami depth), I would reach past the fine-boned zing of a Vinho Verde and opt for the deep red comfort of, say, that malbec, be it Argentine or from Cahors in the south-west of France.

Pick out the strongest flavour in the dish

As I say, it's all about finding the balance between the weight of the wine and the dish. Look to the strongest flavour elements of the food and think of what you want the wine to achieve. A good idea is to consider what our website guide suggests and think of the wine as a sauce to go with the dish.

Greek salad

In short, full-bodied red or white wines, sometimes with a little boost of alcohol, will suit dishes with bags of rich, perhaps stronger umami, flavours while for lighter, crisper wines with lower alcohol levels and more subtle or delicate flavours, look to similarly flavoured and textured dishes sharing similar taste profiles.

The acid taste

A key component of most wines is acidity. Generally, wines lie on the acid side of the pH scale, somewhere between 2.7 and 4 (alkali start at about 8 on a scale that goes up to 14). It can be a double-edged sword in food matching, making or breaking an otherwise beautiful pairing, but is very useful for getting the balance right.

Wine and cheese/creamy dishes

In the first instance, it is the ideal thing to slice through rich, creamy and/or fatty elements, refreshing the palate for the next mouthful. Cheese-dominated recipes are an obvious example. The steely Chablis I mentioned above is a wonderful match for richly creamy cheeses like Maroilles or Brie. A crisp, elegant Jura white from the cool foothills of the Alps works wonders with a fondue, while a baked Camembert rich, oozy and mouthcoating to the max, is delightfully good with bubbles.

Fondue and wine

Matching olive oil & dressings

Meals in which olive oil is used prolifically are another good example of those requiring a splash of acidity to offer some balance. Equally, when acidity is a key component of the dish in, for example, something with a sharp, citrusy dressing, a wine with enlivening acidity as well as fruitiness will hold its own without swamping the fresh flavours of the food. A ripe, fruity wine with low acidity can fall terribly flat if it doesn't have the cut to cope with the sharpness thrown at it by the food.

And taming the tomato

Tomato-dominated dishes can have high acidity and need a wine with a bit of the same to work with them, hence the suitability of many Italian reds, their lively lift and bite tangoing with tomato-packed pasta sauces. Perhaps rather counter-intuitively, muscats and gewurztraminers from Alsace seem to strike the right note when it comes to fresh tomatoes too, but then again, this part of France is renowned for making wines for the table, so perhaps it shouldn't come as such a surprise!

Toughing up to tannins

Tannins in red wine, and occasionally in some whites these days, can serve a similar function by cutting through richness. In effect, they scour the tongue of proteins and fat and are useful when looking for a match with a dish like, say, the Puy lentil stew mentioned above or perhaps cheesy sauce.

Pulses and legumes offer a protein source that give well-proportioned tannins something to get their grippy little teeth into. Nut-rich dishes (particularly good with oaked whites like Rioja blanco or a well-judged chardonnay) and those made with soya mince or quorn are similarly protein-packed. Tofu fits this bill to some extent too, though his depends on what you cook it with as the tofu is a sponge for other flavours. A ragu made with quorn or soya mince, with most of the other traditional ingredients in place, is no less a wonderful match for red wines than their meatier versions.

Mushrooms, and similarly aubergines, when they dominate a dish are also wonderful with red wines, their meaty, savoury and earthy notes promoting the pairing. Indeed, I was once given some sage advice that the way to show off a very fine red was to pair it with a simple mushroom dish, preferably made with the wild varieties, and it works an absolute treat. Deeply umami ingredients like soy sauce, miso, Parmesan, veggie versions of Worcestershire sauce, and even Marmite, when added to sauces and stews, offer something for reds to get their teeth into, and any sauce in which red wine features is an obvious candidate.

Mushroom

Tannin and spice – not so nice!

A word of gentle warning about tannins: if you have a hotly spiced dish; one in which chilli is playing a significant role, steer clear of overtly tannic wines to avoid the clash of steel that will ensue as the heat of the chillies rubs the tannins up the wrong way. Look instead to wines with plenty of fruit, be they red or white. Indeed, this is where sweetness comes in.

Off-dry or medium-sweet wines can work wonders with chilli-spiked food, hosing down the fire and smoothing everything out. That is not to say that spiced dishes are not red-wine friendly at all. Cumin and cinnamon are considered to be good pals for reds, as is star anise (and five spice in general, if used subtly). Just match the depth and breadth of the spice flavours with the depth and breadth of the wine. Bear in mind that some veggie ingredients, such as tofu, are sponges for the flavours you introduce rather than having a flavour of any depth at all. They are carriers, sometimes bringing texture, but basically providing a platform. It will be the spices and herbs and any other ingredient with any potency that needs to be matched with the wine.

Sweet and sour

Sweet and sour flavours in a dish will also cuddle up to a bit of sweetness in a wine, as long as there is a lick of vibrant acidity to keep pace with the sour. This takes into account not only the classic sweet and sour dishes we are used to from the Chinese takeaway, but also to the foods of south-east Asia such as Thailand, who make so much of their vegetables, many of which we can now get here in the British Isles. Think fruity and fragrant in the wine; something with plenty of flavour – gewurztraminer, pinot gris, viognier, riesling, muscat, and many other such aromatic beauties spring to mind, and one or two fruity and soft reds can do the job too. Easy-going, good-value grenache, gamay and zinfandel are examples I turn to often. I tend to find that these types of red and white wine, with lots of ripe fruit, are excellent matches for dishes in which the sweet, fragrant and earthy tones of root vegetables are brought to the fore.

I could go on but I hope you see that vegetarian food, in all its glorious technicolour wonder, offers much for the wine lover, and that that these musings offer you meat-free food for thought.

However, I have to say again, drink the wine you enjoy and don't get hidebound. Experiment and seek out things that surprise and delight and you will have few disasters and will hone your very personal taste wonderfully. This, after all, has to be the joy of wine and food.

Steve Farrow

The Society's Wine Information Editor

Steve Farrow

Having spent several years in The Showroom, Steve likes nothing more than chatting with members about food and wine and is our in-house Wine Without Fuss food and wine man.

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