How to pair wine with vegetables

A primer with guidelines and some spectacular suggestions

Published March 12, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

A health dinner salad with lots of greens. (Tom Perkins)
A health dinner salad with lots of greens. (Tom Perkins)

Pairing wines with vegetable-focused dishes -- including vegan and vegetarian foods -- is easy, but it's also a way to flex your creative muscles. Honestly, choosing wines for these dishes can result in some of the most exquisite pairings if we understand a few basic principles:

  1. Powerful flavors in food and richness call for powerful wines.
  2. Lighter food flavors require lighter wines.
  3. Spicy, salty, or smoky flavors in food welcome lighter, fruity reds, and off-dry to semi-sweet whites.
  4. You can pair food with wine by creating complementary pairings, where the food tastes like the wine (pasta with fresh herbs, olive oil, and olives paired with fresh, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc). Or you can go the other direction with contrasting pairings, the food and the wine have opposite flavors and textures (an earthy mushroom risotto, for instance with a fruit-driven Pinot Noir).

One of the keys to enjoying a great wine and food match is to consider the cooking method you apply to a dish. A meal featuring steamed vegetables and brown rice will call for a much lighter wine than one featuring the same vegetables grilled and served with an enticing, peppery pasta. Steaming or poaching creates far less flavor intensity in a dish than charring, flavor-concentrating methods like grilling, broiling, roasting or braising. Sauté and pan-frying are right in the middle of the intensity scale.

And thinking about what makes dishes "rich" and "light" is where you can really get creative. For vegetarian dishes, whole milk or cream, eggs and cheeses can create real richness in a dish that might traditionally be meat-based (lasagna, for example). Vegan-friendly dishes might use olive oil, seitan, tofu and especially nuts to achieve a "meaty" richness. Also, vegetable-based sauces, reductions, purées, and coulis add layers of flavor and will welcome a heartier wine. Fruit-based sauces and purées can add sweetness and acidity to a dish, and will welcome a contrasting dose of spices, herbs or salt, and consequently spicy, herbaceous or "salty" wines.

Of course, these aren't hard rules, but guidelines to help you think through your pairing choices. Experiment on your own and have fun preparing, serving and eating a wonderful meal of vegetables, and let your wine make it just a little more glorious.

But in the meantime, let's get specific. Here are some basic veggie-based foods and wines that will almost always work together.

Avocados: They are rich and sexy, and work beautifully with voluptuously herbaceous, grassy and fruity whites, such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay from the Hudson Valley, Italy or Chile, Albariño from Spain, or Moschofilero from Greece.

Beans, lentils, pulses: These have meaty, high-intensity flavors that call for medium- to full-bodied reds with a dose of tannin and a load of fruit: Syrah (Shiraz), Merlot, Chianti Classico, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Côte du Rhône. Also, dry whites from Alsace, France (they behave like red wines in drag).

Corn: With or without butter, corn is deceptively rich, and was made for oaky Chardonnay.

Couscous with herbs and vegetables: Dry rosé, sparkling Brut Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, unoaked Chardonnay (such as true French Chablis), semi-dry Gewürztraminer or Riesling.

Gazpacho and other light, raw tomato dishes: Vinho Verde from Portugal, Sauvignon Blanc, Rueda from Spain. Also, a light, dry rosé from Provence.

Grilled vegetables: My favorite. Try a fruity light to medium-bodied red, such as Beaujolais-Villages, Rioja Crianza, Dolcetto, Pinot Noir or an Australian "GSM" (Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre) blend. For whites: Viognier, Fumé Blanc, Gewürztraminer, or Argentine Torrontes.

Hummus; baba ganoush; tabouleh; falafel: The lemon and/or spice in these dishes call for Dry to Semi-Dry Finger Lakes Riesling, South African Chenin Blanc, California Sauvignon Blanc and (believe it or not) White Zinfandel.

Lasagna; pasticcio; pastas with tomato-based sauces, vegetables and cheese (or tofu): Where to start? There are so many medium-bodied, subtly fruity reds to choose from: Chianti Classico from Tuscany, Barbera from Piemonte, Mencia from Bierzo, Spain, Pinot Noir from Oregon or New York State, Zinfandel, Merlot from Washington State, Carmenère from Chile, Nemea from Greece … where to stop?

Mushrooms: Just two words (and one wine) to remember: Pinot Noir. The earthy 'shrooms and the fruit of the Pinot make for the Divine Contrast.

Olives: All from Spain: Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, dry rosé from Navarra or Rioja, bubbly Cava. No better and no simpler finger food/tapas than good olives and good wine.

Onions: Try an Alsace or Oregon Pinot Gris with a savory onion tart, and a Beaujolais or Côte du Rhône with a traditional onion soup.

Pasta or risotto with grilled or sautéed vegetables; ratatouille: Dress with a good extra virgin olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar, and serve with full-bodied whites, such as California Chardonnay, Viognier, Côte du Rhône Blanc, an Australian Semillon, or Washington State Semillon/Chardonnay blend. Reds: Chianti Classico or Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany, Dão from Portugal, Ribera del Duero from Spain, Pinot Noir, Merlot or Zinfandel from California , or Cabernet Franc from the Hudson Valley or Long Island, or an inexpensive, simple, young red Bordeaux. And many more ...

Salads with goat cheese and citrusy vinaigrette; tomato salads (in season): Serve with Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, Brut Prosecco or Cava.

As with all good food, the quality of ingredients -- their freshness and seasonality -- is paramount, and these pairing suggestions are based on the flavors inherent in these ingredients when they're good. Pairing a great wine with an out of season tomato salad just isn't going to highlight the features of the tomato that aren't there. But try a local garden-fresh tomato, basil and cippolini onions, olive oil, balsamico, and salt and pepper with fresh-baked bread and a glass of dry Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc, and I guarantee happiness at the table.

Pliny the Elder is said to have uttered the profound and timeless phrase, "In Vino, Veritas" ("In Wine, Truth"). I certainly agree with this ancient wine geek, but let me humbly amend his famous statement with one of my own: In Vino, Vegetas. 

By Steven Kolpan

Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. He is the author of "WineWise," a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world

MORE FROM Steven Kolpan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Food Wine