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Written by Nikitas Magel   

New Food and Wine Pairings:
Vegetarian Fare

Early in my journey of discovering wine, I single-handedly (and perhaps somewhat arrogantly) concluded that it was impossible for a vegetarian to fully appreciate wine as a meat-eater could.  I felt that there was no way for someone who abstained from animal fat to enjoy the rich and powerful red wines I had come to love and establish in my mind, naïvely, as the point of reference for wine in general.  But that was then; my perspective is more nuanced now, as a result of having learned a great deal through tasting and formal study.  And although I still don't believe a vegetarian can fully appreciate the synergy of a full-bodied red wine well-matched with food, I do acknowledge the plethora of wines that actually beautifully complement vegetable or grain dishes.  But there's a catch to pairing vegetarian food.

It starts with paying attention to the broad strokes, if you will, of a wine's flavor profile.  Lean whites — Sauvignon Blanc, unoaked Chardonnay, and Riesling — tend to pair easily with vegetables, especially if you drizzle them with anything vinegar- or lemon-based, mimicking the wine's acidity.  Another approach, especially if the wine in question has some herbaceous qualities (New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a prime example), is to sprinkle a mediterranean spice blend like Italian Seasoning or Herbes de Provence, which contain oregano, thyme, rosemary, and sage.  And of course, the strong fruity-green taste of extra virgin olive oil is a sure thing for vegetables paired with these wines.

A bit more of a challenge to match are rich white wines, the quintessential example of which is oak-aged, new-world Chardonnay, with its rounder, broader, heavier flavor profile.  One trick is to use sauces made with cream or butter to echo similar elements in the wine's flavor, whereas using nuts or seeds — such as almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, or pinenuts — will play off the nutty character brought about by the oak aging that a great deal of these wines undergo.  Another technique is to include sweet vegetables in your dish — such as sweet potato, yam, sun-dried tomato, butternut squash, or roasted red pepper — which simply rounds out the plant-like flavors of many greens.

Light red wines — Chianti, Rioja, Beaujolais, and Cabernet Franc of the Loire Valley — are trickier to pair with veggie dishes.  They tend to have a little more tannin, due to the grape skin contact during the winemaking process, and/or a flavor profile characterized by bright red berry fruits with some savory elements.  The challenge in that case is to prepare your vegetable or grain dish in a way that will pick up on some of the spicy, earthy, or sweet features of that light red wine.  Try experimenting with warm spices —such as curry, cinnamon, ginger, or chinese five spice — or adding umami (as the Japanese call it) in the form of miso or soy sauce.  Cooking with fire — such as grilling, roasting, barbecuing — is another way to get those veggies to play well with a light red, as is grating a hard, aged cheese like parmesian or manchego.

Now as for big, heavy red wines like Bordeaux, California Cabernet, Rhone blends, or Aussie Shiraz… I wouldn't suggest them with vegetarian fare.  The reason is simple: they're almost sure to overwhelm and mask the flavors of a veggie or grain-based dish.  It would be like having your chocolate-raspberry cake with a cup of green tea — good luck tasting the tea.  The implication there is what lies at the base of all food and wine pairing: balance & complement.  While I don't believe in micromanaging your meals with the intention of striking the "perfect" pairing (there is no such thing), I do believe that following basic guidelines will ensure, as I've written before, that angels sing — rather than trains wreck — in your mouth.  In the end, though, you're the final judge; it's your wine, your food, your mouth, your experience.  Experiment to see what works for you. end

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