News and views | Which wines to pick with vegetarian food?

News and views

Which wines to pick with vegetarian food?

As it's Word Vegetarian Day I thought I'd re-run an article from Decanter on wine and vegetarian food I wrote a few years ago but still contains some useful pointers from top wine producers and sommeliers. (Some of the people quoted are now in different jobs.)

It’s a familiar problem, these days: you invite friends over and plan to open some treasured bottles. You discover one - horrors, two of them are vegetarians. What to do? Eat what you originally planned, making separate dishes for the veggies? Or make everyone eat vegetarian food and serve less interesting wines?

The panic often stems from stereotyping vegetarian food as light and salady - ‘rabbit food’ as its detractors scornfully describe it. In fact there’s as wide a range of flavours in vegetable based dishes as meat based ones - they just need a slightly more creative approach.

The obvious difference between vegetable-based and meat-based cooking is
the absence of raw or rare protein and animal fat which both tame the tannins of full bodied young reds and oakier whites. There are two ways round that if you want to drink a fine red wine. The first is to produce palate coating alternatives in the form of sauces, pures or other ingredients such as cheese or pulses that will build a bridge to your red.

“If you are looking to match the top wines of the world in a mature state, such as the best of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and the Napa Valley, you need a dish that is classic, harmonious and balanced, whether it’s based on meat or vegetables” says former sommelier Larry Stone, now General Manager of Rubicon Estate. ”I like grain and mushroom dishes with a mushroom stock and red wine reduction myself but you could equally well serve farfel or spaetzle with a truffle reduction (made with reduced vegetable stock, red wine, a touch of kombu for body, and truffles); kasha with porcini stock and roasted porcini or risotto with chanterelles, cippolini onions, white wine, parmesan and butter.”

Alexis Gaulthier, chef at the Pimlico-based Roussillon (now at the eponymous Gauthier Soho) which has had a vegetarian menu since it opened in 1998 thinks along similar lines. “A dish such as risotto with black truffles cooked with brown butter and a bit of parmesan is perfectly able to take a red wine as is a dish of winter vegetables and fruits with a touch of cinnamon.”

“You can work with any kind of wine. Which style you choose depends how you cook your vegetables and the time of year. In spring the register is likely to be light and mineral whereas in autumn and winter you can be dealing with ingredients that are quite strongly flavoured such as salsify and celeriac.”

Gaulthier’s menus are vegetable-based rather than vegetarian so he can also incorporate meat or fish-based elements to intensify the flavour. “We might take some Jerusalem artichokes and roast them in the caramelised juices left over from roasting a joint of beef. Or cook with a crustac (shellfish) jus”

Other ingredients that are red wine-friendly include beans and other pulses, polenta, cooked tomato sauces, aubergines (eggplant) and cheese. “Add any aged hard cow's milk cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Saenkanter Gouda, Mimolette or Keen's Cheddar to a vegetarian dish and you'll improve its compatibility.” says Larry Stone

The other strategy is to modify the wines you serve. “The trick with a vegetable based menu is to go with wines that are a bit more mature; ones that have more finesse and elegance and a bit less tannin” says Yannick Chaloyard, general manager and wine buyer for Morgan M in Islington which also has a ‘From the garden’ menu. “With vegetarian food the flavours are more subtle so you have to be a bit more accurate. It’s easy to overwhelm a dish.”

Fred Brugues head sommelier of Pierre Gagnaire’s London restaurant Sketch takes a slightly different approach with the vegetarian menu they serve at the Lecture Room and Library. “The key word for me with vegetarian food is freshness so I look for cooler growing areas - the Loire for example rather than Argentina or Chile. Even with a cooler wine producing country like New Zealand there are some areas I wouldn’t go - Central Otago, for instance. Matching wine to vegetarian food is an opportunity to use small vintages rather than great ones. If you’re talking about red Bordeaux, 2002 is a good vintage to pair with vegetarian food - it’s more approachable and subtle than 2003 or 2000.

Even bearing in mind these caveats it’s easy to misjudge the power of a quality red. Brugues served a 2002 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir from Martinborough, now a full five years old with a richly flavoured dish of braised chicory with a spinach veloute and although the sweetness of the fruit was a good counterpoint to the bitterness of the chicory and spinach it still overpowered the dish. His alternative pairing of a crisp minerally 2004 Gruner Veltliner Kaferberg from Loimer was far better.

It is in fact these lighter, crisper, more elegant white wines that really come into their own with vegetarian food, especially at this time of year. I remember Michel Bras serving his famous ‘gargouillou’ of vegetables with a simple local white wine that cost 15 euros on his list and it struck exactly the right note. (How many 3 star restaurants would dare to do that!) Chaloyard at Morgan M had a similar pairing - a fresh crisp Vin du Gers with a creamy white bean soup flavoured with lemon confit. Sometimes, with very delicate preparations, the wine needs to play second fiddle.

What seems quite clear is that vegetable-based menus are very much here to stay - and that it’s not just vegetarians who are opting for them. Your cellar may well have to accommodate a vegetarian sooner rather than later if it hasn’t already had to do so.

Clever tricks with veggie food

To match rich whites add:

* Rich unctuous purees enriched with cream and/or butter
* Vegetable gratins with crispy toppings
* Nuts (especially almonds and hazelnuts). They pick up on the flavour of oak, especially oaked whites.
* roasted pinenuts or pumpkin seeds
* Top quality pulses such as lentils and coco beans
* Add a little cream to vinaigrettes
* Incorporate sweet, rich vegetables such as sweet potato, butternut squash and roast red peppers

To match full bodied reds add:

* Warm spices such as cinnamon, ginger and five spice (though use the latter in moderation
* Enhance flavour by roasting grilling and barbecuing, Rich caramelised flavours add a richness that helps to tame tannins.
* Use miso, soy sauce (and even Marmite) in sauces and stews to replicate meaty flavours
* Drizzle aged balsamic vinegar over your food
* Add shaved cheeses such as parmesan and asagio
* Use mushrooms, especially porcini
* and chestnuts

This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of Decanter

You may also find this article on pairing wine with vegan food useful.

Image © Franck Boston -

If you found this post helpful and would like to support the website which is free to use it would be great if you'd make a donation towards its running costs or sign up to my regular Substack newsletter Eat This, Drink That for extra benefits.


You may also enjoy …

Comments: 5 (Add)

Fiona Beckett on May 22 2012 at 18:41

You're right, of course, James. An oversight. There are parmesan style cheeses such as Twineham Grange which are suitable for vegetarians though

james atkinson on May 22 2012 at 16:46

"Stick a bit of Parmesan on it" isn't a solution as the real stuff always contains rennet and so is non-vegetarian.

IANJ on May 22 2012 at 12:39

Fiona, you are quite correct, Marks are good in this respect, unfortunately Tesco not so, but they are getting better!

If clear labelling of contents and production methods was required by law, then at least we would know exactly what is in a drink. The EU is changing the regulations on this in 2014, but in my opinion they will still not go far enough.

I think people would also be surprised at some of the adjuncts they are unknowingly consuming.

Beers and ales are also a potential nightmare...

Fiona Beckett on May 22 2012 at 11:41

I agree, Ian. It would be useful if all producers included that information on the back label. I think most own brands do, however, including Tesco and Marks

IanJ on May 22 2012 at 09:50

A large proportion of wines are NOT suitable for vegetarians anyway due to the production methods and because of the poor labelling in the UK, it is quite difficult to find ones that are, unless you know where to look.
However, The Co-op and Sainsbury's have now started indicating whether some of their wines are suitable, but there is still a long, long way to go.

Recent posts …

About FionaAbout FionaEvents and appearancesEvents and appearancesWork with meWork with me