Back in the day, one of the first rules of wine and food pairing I learned was “white wine with white meat and fish, red wine with red meat.” It was long ago, and it made sense then. Today, I find it amusing that some people still abide by The Rule as gospel and that when The Rule was the rule, there was little indication that the vast wine and food community would eventually embrace pork as “the other white meat,” or that organic grape growing and vegetarian cooking would become hot topics.
In the early 1970s, as a new wine consumer, I faithfully followed the white with white, red with red rule, because it was the only game in town. We were hungry carnivores then and proud of it. Eating out and experimenting with cooking at home became fashionable and “the rule” became a cliché. Dining out or in was now an adventure, as menus morphed from traditional meat and potatoes to a tempting variety of ethnic foods. Almost overnight, the national food scene went from just food on a plate, to a new term that became a universal buzzword among foodies -- cuisine.
And we learned a few more new terms: sustainability, organics, biodynamics and vegetarianism. Meatless meals, of course, were not new, but the folks who chose to go down that road were often looked at with a gimlet eye by those who relished a big honkin’ juicy beefsteak. Not many years ago, there were few vegetarian restaurants. Not so today. A new interest in fresh food, rather than processed foods, has taken on new value. And the wine industry, at least in the New World, widely supports and practices sustainable viticulture, in partnership with food farming and preparation.
Over the years, I watched this movement, thinking at various times that I needed to take the oath and move over to what some people view as the dark side, that place where people are content to nourish themselves on sticks and twigs. In June of last year I finally took the step and became a vegetarian. It wasn’t an easy decision; my wife still eats meat and prefers to call herself a “flexitarian.” How would I handle the whole wine thing? There were questions I had never considered. For instance, vegans--vegetarians who do not eat meat or fish as well as dairy products--must be aware of wines that are fined using egg whites, or filtered using isinglass, a gelatin prepared from a fish bladder.
Add those concerns to the unspoken assumption that all wine writers tuck into beef with a glass of hearty red wine and I was looking at a personal wine and food crisis. So what was the answer? Talk to some food and wine professionals to get their views on wine and vegetarian cooking. I know what I like and think I have a good feel for wine pairings with dishes that do not include meat. But I needed suggestions from the front-line people who deal with questions about wine pairing with vegetarian dishes.
Nicole Madden, wine buyer for Ubuntu, located in the river-front section of Napa city and one of the hottest vegetarian restaurants in California, offered some insightful pointers. Madden says that sustainability is the main concern at Ubuntu, selecting produce from their own garden. “I find that high acidity whites like Riesling and Grüner Veltliner heighten the flavors of veggies and the various herbs used in the cooking process at Ubuntu.” Madden is attracted more to whites and rosés for pairing with veggies. “Rich wines with a lot of acidity, like Rhône whites and Spanish white wines, work nicely with our food.” On a recent visit to Ubuntu I had a marinated beet salad that was especially nice with a Sauvignon Blanc. “Sauvignon Blancs with texture, both barrel fermented and aged, but also tank fermented, are good wines with some vegetable dishes,” says Madden.
She is very high on some of the Japanese-inspired dishes, featuring soy, seaweed and mushrooms that are created at Ubuntu. Then I asked her if there were any wines to avoid when pairing with vegetarian dishes. “I have not been able to match Muscadet with veggies; it works with shell fish, but not veggies.” Ubuntu’s wine list also shies away from big, tannic red wines, but the restaurant is at the gateway to the Napa Valley, so Madden is practical. “Being in Napa, we have to have Cabernet Sauvignon, and there have been cabs I love, but I try to avoid them, as well as big plumy Merlots.” She paused and then added, “I recently added the 2006 Yorkville Cellars Carmenère, an organically farmed red with spicy floral flavors that works very nice with vegan bean stew. Syrahs can work because of the aromatics but the spicy leaner Syrahs are best with veggies.”
Merry Edwards, a Pinot Noir specialist in Sonoma County, believes in the symbiotic relationship between wine and food, suggesting a number of pairings with vegetarian dishes, on her winery’s website. “Any dish with mushrooms pairs well with Pinot, from risotto to pasta to cream of mushroom soup.” A few pairings that Edwards mentioned that I must try are the Merry Edwards 2008 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir with three cheese ravioli with roasted red pepper-garlic sauce, and the 2007 Meredith Estate Pinot Noir with a wild mushroom risotto with radicchio and grated parmesan.
Pinot Noir can have an attractive earthiness that marries nicely with the “forest floor” character of mushrooms. I find, though, that the natural fruity character of Pinot Noir, not the straight-up berry notes of Merlot or Syrah, but a sumptuous wild dark fruit often with a subtle spicy back note, provides a contrast to the earthy flavors of mushrooms, especially combined with herb-crusted cheeses or one of my favorites, the boldly-flavored Parmigiano-Reggiano. Beets (the liver of the vegetable group for some people) work the same symbiosis with Pinot Noir, as do earthy root veggies like turnips and rutabagas.
I admit, though, that there is more to wine than Pinot Noir, so I submitted a few questions to Italian winemaker Alois Legeder, a vegetarian and a man of few words.
Legeder professes to not be a supporter of specific rules when pairing wine with vegetarian dishes, adding: “The decision neither to eat meat or fish has strongly changed my eating habits, so that today when choosing wine I do not want to follow certain rules or criteria. In my opinion, a good wine pairs always with a good dish,” says Legeder, suggesting Tagliolini at Tartufo (pasta with truffles) with the Legeder Lowengang Chardonnay as “a perfect pairing.”
He has found that when preparing vegetarian dishes, spinach and artichoke are two things that do not pair with any wine. Spinach and artichoke are not among my favorite foods, so I don’t know if they work with wine or not. What I do know is that the best tactic is to experiment, experiment, and then experiment some more. Legeder’s advice is sound, but people often look for guidelines when making decisions they are not sure about, like pairing wine with food. For me, finding a good wine with meatless dishes is an on-going challenge, although I haven’t, as yet, come across too many occasions where the wine choice is all that different for vegetarian meals than it was for meals centered round meat or fish. So I guess the old rule of white wine with white meat and red wine with red meat still makes a lot of sense.