As a vegan, one of the biggest obstacles I face when it comes to wine - aside from the difficulty of actually working out whether a wine is vegan-friendly or not - is pairing it with food. Traditionally, wine has always been paired with rich, animal-based foods, and all the classic pairings - Malbec and steak, Sauvignon Blanc with seafood, port and cheese- are out of the question. Looking in supermarkets, or scouting out a wine merchant, you’d be hard-pressed to find many plant-based suggestions to pair with the wines. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, though!
If you know where to look, there’s actually plenty of opportunities to pair wines with plant-based dishes, and it isn’t just vegans that should be keen to explore the big, virtually limitless world of vegetable pairings. As we all become more concerned about eating healthily, and more of us start practising Meat Free Mondays, it’s high time the wine world caught up.
Here are a few things every plant-based (or plant-curious) wine enthusiast should bear in mind when trying to pair their wines with food.
Raw vegetables need crisp whites
Raw or light, fresh vegetables tend to work well with crisp white wines with a nice level of acidity - try pairing carrots, spinach, celery, cucumber, peas, green beans, or steamed tender stem broccoli with varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet France, or even fresh, citrus-led sparkling wines. Vegetables like asparagus are notoriously difficult to match, so stick with something like a Sancerre, which has a lot of minerality and vegetal notes.
However, for things like rocket leaves, which has a strong, peppery taste, it should be a bolder, more substantial wine, like a Chardonnay. And stay away from reds, because the spiciness will make the wine taste bitter.
Sweetcorn, because of the sweet, creamy nature, pairs astonishingly well with Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc!
Savoury vegetables prefer earthy reds, and rich whites
For richer whites like Chardonnay, white Pinot Noir and wines with oak, try mushrooms, lentils, sweet potatoes and other vegetables with earthy notes. These will also pair nicely with sweeter, lighter reds - Beaujolais wines, and Gamay or Pinot Noir grapes - and rosés. Richer whites also have enough substance, balanced with acidity, to cut through fattier things like avocado, cashew cream sauces, or even tempura vegetables.
“Woody” vegetables - mushrooms, parsnips, celeriac, chestnuts- would work well with the earthier Burgundies, given that most of these are high-quality Pinot Noir, and high-quality Pinot Noir has a lot of mushroom, vegetal and earthy animal flavours. May sound a little off-putting, but trust me; high-end Pinot Noirs are some of the most incredible wines around.
Roasted vegetables need big reds
Many vegetables take on a wildly different personality when they are cooked compared to when they are raw - mushrooms, for example, become ‘meatier’; onions and peppers become sweeter; celery and garlic gain milder, more palatable flavours. Roasting, grilling, and braising vegetables have the potential to stand up to bigger, bolder red varieties without being overpowered. Much Italian red wine is designed to be consumed with hearty food, but consider how much they value pasta dishes, seafood, and Mediterranean vegetables. Many dishes feature cheese, but it’s a light garnish in real Italian cuisine, and you’ll find many dishes don’t need it- and by that theory, your wine shouldn’t either.
Opt for bolder reds, that have medium tannins and a fruity character, but with complexity; Zinfandel (USA Malbec!), Shiraz-Cabernet blends, older Pinot Noir, or Grenache. Stronger flavours, like black beans, butternut squash, garlic and bell peppers, can go up against a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Herbs and Spices need spicy, well-balanced wines
Vegetables have beautiful flavours all on their own, but they really unlock with herbs and spices. The scope here is HUGE. Moroccan dishes feature warm spices (cinnamon, nutmeg) and dried fruits (apricot and sultana)- pair falafel, or tagine, with something like Viognier to enjoy the fruit, Riesling to provide sweetness with crisp acidity, or a lighter red, like a Pinot Noir.
Indian cuisine can vary from warm cumin to fresh coriander, which is equally good with Riesling, Chardonnay, Rioja and other fruit, spicy reds, like those from Portugal and Spain.
French and Italian food values basil, oregano, black pepper and garlic; these big flavours call for the bigger reds. And what about sage, thyme, and rosemary, the classic herbs that come to mind when we think about pork sausages, roasted chicken, and lamb? There’s no law stopping you from garnishing vegetables with these. Think about rosemary roasted potatoes, vegan-friendly stuffing or hearty, comforting sage and apple lentil burgers. Mmmm.
Bring out the umami
Umami is a well-known wine term for those in the know; it refers to “meaty flavours’. Mushrooms, beans and dried tomatoes are all high in glutamic acids, which is what makes meat, and other foods, taste savoury and intense. The best way to pair vegetables with big reds is to add more of this umami component to them; season with savoury herbs, or add seasoning elements like soy sauce (vegan or vegetarian-friendly, of course), nutritional yeast flakes (a must for the vegan!), smoked paprika or liquid smoke, or plum vinegar.