Pouring sparkling wine

How To Pair Wine With Vegetables

Experts explain how to match wines with plant-based meals.

Two ICE experts explain how to pair wines with vegetable-forward and plant-based meals.

Pairing wines with proteins is an age-old practice. We know Argentinian Malbec will go nicely with a ribeye, but what vegetarian dish would it pair well with? 

Palates are diversifying and restaurants are embracing plant-based cuisine. Three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park recently overhauled its menu to go mostly meatless. Three-Michelin-starred L’Arpège in Paris, ranked among The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, has embraced vegetable-forward cooking since 2001. Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy, which offers a rotating, seasonal tasting menu and a wine list curated by sommelier Lauren Friel of Boston’s Rebel Rebel, has been leading the movement in New York since its opening in 2008.

So how do you pair wines with vegetable-forwarded dishes, which are becoming the focal point of many dining experiences? First, start with how it’s cooked.

“Sometimes it's not the protein or the vegetable in question, but the method of cooking. Sometimes, you're pairing wines based upon the sauce,” says Dean of Wine Studies Scott Carney, MS. “You're trying to find the key flavor of the dish.”

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Charring locally grown corn on the grill? Trying your hand at polenta cakes? Pair those with something skillfully oaked, like a Grgich-Hills Napa Chardonnay, to accentuate those deep flavors, Scott says.

It’s also important to think outside traditional food group pairings, like matching red wines with red meat or white wines with chicken and fish, says Ann Ziata, Chef-Instructor for ICE’s Health-Supportive Culinary Arts program, which explores plant-based cooking.

Dish from health-supportive culinary arts class
A vegetarian dish presented for restaurant concept day in Health-Supportive Culinary Arts

“Consider where ingredients originate, what the seasonality of the dish is, the main cooking technique used in the dish and how delicate or strong the flavors of the dish are,” says Chef Ann, who also graduated from ICE’s Intensive Sommelier Training program. “Malbec is a strong, bold wine grown in warmer climates, most notably Argentina. In the summer, I would pair this with a smoky, high-heat dish like grilled cauliflower steaks or portobello burgers. In the winter, with a hearty baked sage and lentil stuffed pepper.”

How to pair wines with plant-based foods is a common question among people who avoid meat, adds Chef Ann, who says it’s an easy problem to solve when vegetables are prepared as the main course and not just a side dish.

“Many of my favorite vegan restaurants have incredible wine programs,” she says, which include abcV and Dirt Candy in New York, and Millennium in Oakland. "It’s a very outdated and narrow-minded concept that wine needs meat. Does a steak need a glass of Bordeaux? Yeah, I’d say so. Does a Bordeaux need a steak? Definitely not.”

health-supportive culinary arts menu
The menu for restaurant concept day in Health-Supportive Culinary Arts

In 2010, Scott opened Junoon, an Indian restaurant with an expansive option of vegetarian dishes. As the beverage director, he not only developed a wine program for a restaurant whose cuisine does not have a rich history with wine, but he also faced the fun challenge of serving clientele with vastly different tastes.

For those who couldn’t handle spice, Scott would recommend off-dry wines or wines with lower alcohol content. A tendre Champalou Vouvray Les Fondreaux works magic. And for those who wanted to bring on the heat, he’d recommend the Sula Sauvignon Blanc from Nashik, India to amplify those flavors.

“It’s important to listen to your guests to decide what they’re familiar with and gain their trust. That way you can encourage them to try new things and create a memorable experience,” he says.

Overall, whether you’re a carnivore or vegetarian, the general principles of wine pairings remain the same. Wine can either contrast your dish, like pairing something fatty with a high tannic wine to cut through the meal’s richness, or complement your dish, like pairing fresh green vegetables with a Sauvignon Blanc, which is high in methylpyrazines, an aroma compound that smells of bell pepper.

And if you’re going to a vegetarian dinner party and you’re not sure what to bring, both Scott and Chef Ann say something bubbly — like Champagne, Cava or Prosecco — go with almost anything.

“These are fantastic food wines that pair with everything. You can also serve them pre-dinner to start off the night with a little bubbly,” Chef Ann says. “Wine makes a dinner, but sparkling wine makes it a party.”

Study plant-based cooking with Chef Ann.

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