A Vegetarian's Guide to Wine Pairing
Author: Tom Planer
When you read pairing suggestions for wine, many people often default to a fairly simple red for meat, white for fish, vegetarians - figure it out for yourselves.
The first part of this makes a bit of sense - on a simple level. Some of the UK’s most popular red grapes & styles (Cabernet Sauvignon, Rioja, Malbec) are known for their bold, robust flavours that pair well alongside red meat. Historically that meat would have been relatively simply prepared, perhaps with a sauce to spice things up. So most red wines would most likely work with most dishes.
The second part makes a bit of sense too - while pairing lighter red wines and fish can work - it’s tricky to know for a relative newbie which ones on the list / in the shop were lighter reds. So the safest bet was to stick to white, which more often than not, would work well with fish.
So red wine = good with meat, white = good with fish. Simple, straightforward, memorable.
But if you don’t eat meat neither of these simple pairing tips are much help, and with an increasing number of people switching to fully plant based, vegetarian and flexitarian diets how do you know which wines will work with your dinner?
When you start to dig a little deeper, as well as discovering there are a few top tips for pairing wine with vegetarian food, we’ll also start to unravel the overly simplistic red = meat, white = fish myth.
Let’s dig in…
Understanding Vegetarian flavours
Firstly when we consider vegetarian dishes, it’s important to remember that we're dealing with a broad spectrum of flavours.
From the earthiness of mushrooms and beets to the fresh, green notes of asparagus and peas, each ingredient brings a unique element to the plate.
With this diversity in mind, the key to successful pairing lies in understanding these flavours and matching them with corresponding wine characteristics - and this is true of meat / fish pairings too.
Whether you’re a vegetarian or a meat eater - your diet now is likely incredibly varied, taking in flavours from far beyond Europe’s borders. A far cry from the boiled beef and turnips your ancestors survived on.
If traditional wine pairing focuses on matching wines with the protein, vegetarian cuisine requires us to approach this differently and look for wines that complement the dish's dominant flavours or cooking method, and when you think about it omnivores should be doing the same rather than relying on the simple old red / white proverb.
General Vegetarian Wine Pairing Tips
White wine is the safest bet:
Generally speaking, a relatively acidic white wine will go fairly well with most vegetarian dishes (though there are of course exceptions to the rule).
Acidity is Key:
High-acid wines are particularly food-friendly in general, as they can cut through rich, creamy dishes, contrast well with sweeter elements and stand up to the acidic elements so the wine doesn’t end up tasting weak and watery. Triple whammy!
Light dishes go well with light wines, while heartier dishes can stand up to fuller-bodied wines. When it comes to vegetarian food - the dishes tend to be a bit lighter anyway - so if you err towards lighter wines - that’s likely to be a safer option.
Make sure there’s fat & protein if you want tannins:
Tannins in red wines (and orange wines) like to bind to protein and fat in your mouth. So if there’s no protein or fat in a dish - the tannins remain unbound - which can sometimes make them rough and a bit too intense.
Exploring Vegetarian Food & Wine Pairings
Now that we have our basic rules covered, let's get a bit more specific and check out some specific wine pairings that work well with some common vegetarian foods:
Meaty Things without the Meat:
Whether it’s a veggie sausage, pulled jackfruit burger or a creamy chicken and leak pasta without the chicken - many vegetarian dishes are similar in most ways to their meaty counterparts - just without the meat.
The internet is full of meat centric wine & food pairings - so google the meaty alternative and you should generally be ok.
Chinese Style Dishes:
China is a very big country, with a huge variety of different cuisines, but what we eat in the UK often focuses on Cantonese (many dishes have a slightly sweet element) or Sichuan (which tends to be quite spicy). Both these cuisines work perfectly with Riesling, leaning towards dry for Canotenese, and ever so slightly off-dry for Sichuan.
Indian Style Dishes & Curries:
The complex spices in a vegetable curry require a wine that can hold its own, and as they’re often spicy you want to avoid higher alcohol wines so head for cooler climates (Northern Europe). A Chenin Blanc from the Loire, Pinot Gris from Alsace or Riesling would all work. If you’re looking for red just avoid high alcohol, a rosé would work nicely - but avoid pale pink provence rosés which can be lovely but are too flimsy for all the spice.
If it’s a mild curry you’re going for - try a Viognier or heavier, slightly oaked Chardonnay.
If you’re cracking open the latest Ottolenghi book, you’ll notice a lot of the recipes have a huge range of spices. You can try and search for specific wines that match the dish you’re going for - but a generally safe bet would be something like a Grüner Veltliner, with good acidity and a peppery note or a lighter Syrah for the same reason.
Generally speaking high acid or slightly aged, oxidative whites with a nutty element will work on dishes with a lot of nuts or chickpeas.
With cheese-based dishes like a rich lasagna or a gooey pizza, you can start to explore both reds and whites.
Tannins in wine bind to fat and protein which is why you can drink big, tannic wine with red meat as it balances the wine back out. The same is true with cheesy dishes.
Having veggie lasagne? Counterbalance it with a high tannin, high acid Nebbiolo or Sangiovese.
Mac & Cheese? If you don’t want to cut through it with something acidic - lean into the dish with an Oaky California Chardonnay.
The slightly funky, fermented flavours that accompany a lot of Korean dishes are perfect with Orange wines. There’s something about the interesting floral notes, grippy texture and slightly salty finish that works really well together.
The smoky, spicy notes in chilli can go really well with Syrah, which often has peppery, savoury, spicy notes. The only watch out is to be careful it’s not too tannic or too high in alcohol or it might be a bit too intense on the palate to really enjoy it. Or just dial down the heat on your chilli a bit.
With nut roasts, risottos & veggie stroganoffs, mushrooms' earthy flavours are a natural fit for earthy wines. Try Pinot Noir or a Nebbiolo (nicely aged if you can get it) for a really harmonious, undergrowth inspired pairing.
Anything battered, from Quorn nuggets to Vegetable Tempura goes well with Champagne & Crémant. The high acidity pierces through the fatty batter and makes it easier to stuff your mouth.
Tomato Based things:
Generally speaking, tomato based dishes (this is true of Pizza too) go well with lighter, acidic, fruity red wines with a bit of zip to them. Try Pinot Noir, Valpolicella, Gamay (Beaujolais) or Grenache.
The smoky flavours of grilled vegetables pair wonderfully with wines that have a hint of oak. A lightly oaked Chardonnay or a Rioja could be a great match. If green pepper and courgette features - lean into that with a Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Franc - both wines are lighter, high in acidity and have a natural grassy, green pepper note.
For fresh, crisp salads, look for a wine that mirrors these qualities. A Sauvignon Blanc or a dry rosé can be a refreshing choice. If your salad features cheese or a creamy dressing, a fuller-bodied white like a Viognier or a light-bodied red like a Gamay could be a good match.
What to eat if you’re vegetarian but love big red wines?
Cabernet Sauvignon (Including Bordeaux), Rioja, Chianti, Syrah/Shiraz. These wines are often high in alcohol, full bodied, and high in tannin.
The reasons they don’t pair so well with vegetarian foods are:
- The tannins don’t have as much protein or fat to bind to, so stay unbound and often taste bitter.
- The dishes are often lighter than the wine flavour-wise so the wine can overpower the food - not usually a successful pairing.
- To counter the lighter flavour, people often up the flavour in the dish which can involve adding spice, but these wines are usually high in alcohol which can create an intense burning sensation when the high alcohol combines with chilli spice.
Some good things to think about if you’re a vegetarian and these styles of wine are your particular cup of tea:
- Make it well done. Many of these wines have smokey, oaky elements which combine well with charred edges.
- Make it fatty. Try and get a decent amount of fat or oil into the dish. This will help with the tannin as they can bind to fats as well as proteins. Cheese is never a bad shout...
- Crack open the houmous. Chickpeas (and normal peas), and tahini are pretty high in protein, not as much as a steak but the oil plus protein will help ease the roughness and bring out the other flavours in the wine.
- A bit of salt can help. This can help stimulate saliva - which also has a bit of protein in and can help give the tannins something to bind to.
- Don’t make it spicy. Spice is ok, but hot, spicy, chilli heat is going to be too oppressive next to the high alcohol.
Wine and vegetarian Cuisine - It’s all about discovery
Pairing wine with vegetarian dishes is an adventure. By focusing on the dominant flavours of the dish, you can find a wine that enhances and complements your meal beautifully.
Remember, these guidelines are just a starting point and it’s important to remember that wine pairing is subjective. What works for one person may not work for another.
Experiment with different combinations to find what you enjoy the most. The beauty of wine and food pairing lies in the journey of trying lots of delicious wines and foods. So don't be afraid to try new things and develop your own unique pairings. The best pairing is one that you enjoy.