You have the color-coded cheat sheet memorized: red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat. But what do you drink when your meal is sans meat altogether?
Though the Vegetarian Resource Group reports that only an estimated 2 to 3 percent of Americans are strictly vegetarian, another 30 to 40 percent are flexitarian, eating a veggie meal or two each week. Meat-free meals do have their advantages. For one, they’re healthful. The American Dietetic Association says diets that include a variety of vegetarian foods tend to result in lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. Vegetarians also tend to have lower body mass indexes and cholesterol levels.
Vegetarian meals are usually less expensive as well. Everyone knows a box of $.99 noodles will stretch the budget further than a filet mignon (leaving more money to spend on wine, of course).
Still, with all its benefits, vegetarian food seems to have a bad rap in the wine and foodie community. Some of my wine loving friends insist you can’t possibly appreciate a Bordeaux or a Napa Cabernet without a slab of meat to accompany it, and that vegetarian food as a whole is impossibly bland and boring.
“There is no question that meat has a lot of flavor, but vegetarian food can be incredibly flavorful and scintillating and varied,” says Didi Emmons, author of Entertaining for a Veggie Planet. “It’s easy to be a
good meat chef, and a lot harder to be a good vegetarian chef.” The reason,she says, is that vegetarian cooking has to go beyond substituting tofu for meat. “You have to be really curious about other cultures. There’s so much to learn from Pakistani, Indonesian, Malaysian, South Indian and Mexican vegetarian cooking.”
Emmons recommends looking to classic vegetarian cookbooks and vegetarian recipes from great chefs like Alice Waters and Richard Olney for inspiration. “Don’t go to a restaurant to get to know vegetarian food. Go to a bookstore and then get in the kitchen.”
Once you’ve emerged from the kitchen, however, the question remains: what wines are best? A few rules of thumb are in order.
In the opinion of Natalie Maclean, sommelier and editor of a free,award-winning newsletter at nataliemaclean.com white wines generally work better with vegetables because they only have tiny amounts of tannins,but light reds like Pinot Noir and Gamay also work because they have softer tannins and juicy berry flavors. Big red wines like Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon usually end up fighting with veggies, because their tannins clash with the natural compounds and flavors in vegetables and their heft overwhelms delicate dishes.
Maclean says it’s important to harmonize the flavor, texture and weight of the dish with the wine. For example, she says,” green food and green wines often go well together, so veggies dance with wines that have herbal, grassy aromas like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.”
When considering texture, also match like with like. A crisp, zippy Riesling would go well with lighter dishes like steamed vegetables, while a heavier. Creamier Chardonnay might pair with a buttery cheese.
For weight, there are two theories, both of which work equally well. Either cut a rich dish with a light wine and vice versa, or match rich with rich and light with light. A creamy quiche would pair well with either a zingy Pinot Grigio or a rich Viognier.
At Greens Restaurant, a pioneering vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, wine director Mike Hale says they offer a lot of white wine on the list, but they sell more red than white. “We tend to go with Rhone varietals, Pinot Noir and lighter-style wines,” he says. “We try not to offer inappropriately tannic wine that needs 20 years to lie down. We don’t discriminate against big, tannic wines; they’re just not our main focus here,”
Hale recommends rosé as a versatile wine for vegetarian dishes. “Even in the wintertime, it’s very appropriate with a lot of our food.” Hale also likes Italian wines because the high acidity is a perfect complement to vegetarian food.
Still, there are always customers who simply order what they like, whether or not its the “right match for the dish. “Wine is just another element of the meal here,” he explains”. We don’t put it on a pedestal.”