How Restaurants Finally Learned to Pair Wine With Vegetarian Food
Embracing the art of selecting the right bottle for a meat-free menu.
Within our dining culture, we have evolved our habits to drink big red wines with meat. Hearty, juicy, red meat. Satisfying bottlings made from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are flattered by a steak or a lamb chop—and, of course, they make the food look good, too. It’s a mutual admiration society.
Just pick up any bottle of, say, a Rhône-style blend from Paso Robles. Somewhere on the back it will recommend pairing with lamb or beef. We also welcome “big wines”—meaning ones with copious amounts of tannin and alcohol—onto our tables partly because we think, “Oh, eating meat while we drink will neutralize those drawbacks.”
But as high-end cuisine veers away from meat, how do we shift the way we match food with those big reds we’ve come to love? After all, it’s not just an issue for vegetarians: Many of us are putting vegetables at the center of our plates more and more, for reasons from our health to the environment. And as Laura Fiorvanti, the owner of New York’s wine-centric Corkbuzz restaurants, puts it, “vegetables are, on their own, the hardest thing to pair with wine.”
It was a lesson on display some time back, when I had two multicourse dinners at the famed Michelin three-star restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York City. Two weeks apart, the meals came just after The New York Times panned the newly vegan cuisine at the restaurant, in a review that the food world was talking about for months; even the cringey headline said that renowned chef Daniel Humm “does strange things to vegetables,” making it sound more like a police report than a culinary critique.
I liked the food more than Times critic Pete Wells did—even the dehydrated, then rehydrated beet that set Twitter ablaze. But something else was giving me pause: the interplay of the new-fangled food and the terrific red wines I drank.
At the first dinner, each course was paired with bottles from Vérité, the joint project of California wine baron Jess Jackson and Bordeaux’s Pierre Seillan, now in its 25th year, that ranks as a maker of some of Sonoma’s most expensive, and tastiest, reds. A few months earlier I had praised them for their plush texture, but it was not helpful to sip them with dishes such as celtuce (aka asparagus lettuce) on a bed of rice porridge. The combination was a classic clash, and one that didn’t reflect badly on either the food or the wine, only on the moment when they collided.
The second dinner was two weeks later, with an entirely different menu that turned out to be much more wine-friendly, in particular because it was suddenly mushroom season, with plates offering plenty of fungi that used their earthiness to bring out the fruity complexity in the wines. I tasted a couple of bottles from the famed second-growth Bordeaux estate Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, from the 1988 and 2010 vintages. The age of these wines helped, too, as they were somewhat mellower.
Like other top-flight restaurants, Eleven Madison Park built a vast wine list with pages and pages of such big reds, which, in its non-vegan days, beautifully complemented Humm’s signature duck dish with daikon and plum as well as other culinary highlights. There are still hundreds of Napa Valley Cabernets on offer, to name one appellation, but the cuisine has changed radically.
Given that restaurants generally make a significant portion of their profits from beverages, Humm acknowledges that the massive menu revision entailed some risk to wine sales. “We were definitely wondering if this cuisine would attract those who drink these wines,” he says about the serious bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy, among others on the list, that are catnip for traditionalists not known for their interest in, say, seitan. “We didn’t know how it would affect the business side. The good news is that it hasn’t affected it at all.”
When it comes to the nitty-gritty of flavor and texture matches, Humm is philosophical. “The way we’re thinking about it is, wine grapes are plants, and this brings us closer to what we’re doing: working with plants,” he says. (Wine itself, though usually vegetarian, is not necessarily vegan, given various common practices, including the clarification process, called fining, can use animal-derived ingredients, such as albumin from egg whites.)
“We’re not creating food for the wine,” Humm notes, “but it’s part of the thought process.”
And he makes a good point about the larger dilemma: “Often you’re pairing with the preparation, not the meat itself.”
Eleven Madison is hardly the only place where the issue has recently come to the fore, and to tackle the topic of big red wines and vegetable-forward food, you have to get into the details of astutely selecting accompaniments. (Or you can go on with your life happily drinking white wines, of course, but the day when that gets old may come.)
At the equally lauded Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain in Tennessee, vice president of food and beverage Andy Chabot notes that even though the restaurants are anything but meat-free, demand for such fare is strong enough that vegetarian and vegan menus are always on offer. “So it’s a challenge we face daily,” he says of getting the pairings right. Like many experts in the field, Chabot focuses on fat, an aspect of matching that many diners seldom contemplate.
Corkbuzz’s Fiorvanti, holder of the coveted title master sommelier, puts it this way: “Fat in food can act as an eraser—it has the ability to mellow tannin in wine.” (Tannin, the remnants of grape skins, stems and such, is the chalky residue that coats your teeth.) Frequently the issue with off-kilter combinations is not the dish’s main ingredients, she adds, “but the preparation or the sauce.”
Chabot’s advice: Don’t baby your vegetables, even if they are baby vegetables. “The tendency is to treat vegetables with a light hand,” he says, “but you can employ more intense techniques and sauces that lend themselves to heavier red wines.” Without meat, “you have to get some other fat in there. It does more than just attach itself to tannin; it coats your palate and protects it from strong flavors.” He cites several Blackberry dishes, including the smoked root broth, black truffle and citrus, as a richer style of cuisine to emulate.
“It’s essentially a vegetarian take on barbecue but maybe even better than the real deal,” Chabot says. “You have smoky flavors, sweet flavors, earthy flavors and that smoky broth, made from rutabagas. All call for those heavier reds you’d often have with barbecued ribs. Zinfandel or Cabernet for the US or Spanish reds such as Ribera del Duero or Priorat are nice with this dish.” Those are exactly the kinds of substantial reds that can be tricky.
Independent wine critic Jeb Dunnuck, who reviews wines for a worldwide audience of aficionados on his eponymous website, is another meat-eater with strong opinions on vegetable matching. “The grill is your friend,” says the Colorado-based Dunnuck. “Char lettuce on there if you want.” It’s a point with wide agreement. “Wood-fire grilling and charring will help,” says Chabot.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dunnuck is a partisan on the side of wine’s primacy at the table—to him, food is important but secondary. “When these chefs try to be too creative, it’s a nightmare,” he laments, referring to cooking both vegan and not. “I don’t envy those sommeliers. I say keep it simple.”
Winemakers have their own take on how their precious products get employed at the vegetable-laden table. Beth Novak Milliken, the president of the Napa Valley–based, family-owned Cabernet specialist Spottswoode, says that for her, “veganism is a limiter when it comes to what we consider workable pairings for our wines.”
Then again, limitations force creativity. Novak Milliken, like many others, cites mushrooms as the easiest non-meat ingredient to reach for—her go-to is a mushroom risotto. But when it comes to multicourse vegan menus like those at Eleven Madison Park, how many portobellos and shiitakes can you really eat? Her secret protein weapon is lentils, if they are prepared with enough fat.
Spottswoode is known for creating restrained and elegant Cabs, and Novak Milliken makes another point about the truly over-the-top, massive red wines that are still produced, though less frequently these days. “What did those pair well with, anyway?” she says bluntly. “The bigger, riper, more monolithic wines were always meant to be a meal in themselves.”
Dunnuck sees the tide turning, which bodes well for lovers of legumes and leafy greens. “Undeniably today, red wines are coming into balance, and that makes them easier to pair with lighter foods.”
If you are Daniel Humm, cooking for diners who expect fireworks, the concepts of light and heavy may be too reductive. Even the “butter” currently offered at the table, made from sunflowers, is a complex savory creation. Humm spends a good portion of his time inventing fats—he also makes a faux butter from onions—as well as what he calls pantry items to deliver big vegan flavor, including bonito flakes made with celery root and fermented almond crème frâiche.
Fermentation, a surefire intensifier, is a focus for many chefs these days, especially those working without meat. And the very word itself, still more associated with wine than with food, highlights the pleasures and perils of teaming like-with-like.
“We’re using so many fermented products now, to deepen the flavors of the vegetables,” says Humm. “The fermentation of the food matches with the fermentation in the wine.”
But to Chabot, that idea gets filed as too much of a good thing. “You can create dissonance when things are too similar,” he says. “You want things to leave space for each other.”
Humm is open to simpler solutions, too. “When I think of what makes matching work, we always have a deep-fried course now,” he says. “It gives such deep satisfaction, like a fried pepper we’ve done. It was amazing with red wine.”
For her part, Fiorvanti saw a lightbulb go off for participants who signed up for one of Corkbuzz’s series of food-and-wine pairing classes. One of the events focused on the nexus of fat and tannin. “They were all like, ‘Aha!’ ” says Fiorvanti. Even though that seminar included meat, to her it was an example of how easy it is to engage thoughtfully on the topic. “Once you understand how tannins in red wine interact with fat, it can be simpler to break down a dish. It is important to remember that many foods have fat, and for this reason, it is not just meat that goes with red wine.”
And ultimately, Fiorvanti says, relying on good old common sense comes in handy. Not everything goes together, and that’s OK: “That’s why we don’t put white-peach puree on brussels sprouts.”
Wine experts share some of their favorite vegetarian dishes and the wines they enjoy pairing with them.
Andy Chabot, Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain
“A hint of heat brings out the nuances in this wine. Roasting the butternut squash brings a dark, robust, earthy sweetness that helps to bump up the flavors needed to keep up with the deep fruit and earthiness of our Lyndenhurst Cabernet.”
Dish: Braised green lentils, finished with caramelized onions and an heirloom tomato concasse