It’s no secret that food and wine pairings have traditionally relied heavily on the meat component of a dish, giving way to the weary generalisation that red meat demands red wine, and poultry and fish calls for white. But where does that leave the growing number of folk who choose not to eat meat? Despite common narratives, however, their options are not limited. In fact, vegans and vegetarians unbound by so-called pairing ‘rules’ have a whole world of flavours to explore. They just need to keep a few things in mind.
1. Think of wine as an ingredient
Treat wine as an ingredient that actively interacts with the dish, rather than something that’s enjoyed on the side. A great wine pairing balances all of these taste components to highlight key flavours, so it can be helpful to consider wine as a product of its structural parts: sweetness, acidity, bitterness, and so on. Read our guide to the five basic characteristics of wine, to get a handle on the factors that make up a wine’s overall flavour profile.
2. Which ingredient dominates the meal?
Vegetarian dishes tend to include more ingredients than a simple steak or piece of fish, so centre your pairing around the vegetable that dominates the meal. As with meat, bold flavours demand a bold wine, so a mushroom-heavy dish will work well with a Pinot Noir, or butternut squash with a rich white.
3. Does the dish include a meat substitute?
Veggie ‘dupes’ have come a long way since the days of bland, reconstituted tofu. Vegetarian sausages, burgers, mince and chicken pieces behave very much like their meat-based counterparts, so if you have a favourite bottle to serve with a meaty spag bol it’s likely it’ll pair well with a meat-substitute alternative, too.
4. How is the food cooked?
This is a very straightforward rule of thumb for veggie pairings. Light and/or cold dishes such as salad call for a lighter wine – perhaps a crisp dry white or a rose – while hot and hearty dishes, such as a casserole, will pair better with a medium- to full-bodied red. And then there’s the ‘sizzle’. Fried foods such as fritters always pair well with a sparkling wine.
5. Is the dish spicy?
With a lot of really great vegetarian dishes originating from India and the East, you can usually expect a good deal of heat in authentic, meat-free meals, so you’ll need a wine that’ll complement these flavours well. Spicy food tends to benefit from a touch of sweetness, so think Rieslings, Pinot Gris or even a full-bodied, fruity rose.
6. Where does the dish originate?
As the old adage says, ‘what grows together goes together’, so you won’t go far wrong by looking at regional cues. Think southern Italian wines for baked pasta dishes or bold Spanish reds for paella, for example.
Vegetarian food and wine pairing cheat sheet
- Green vegetables: Sparkling or light whites
- Root vegetables: Full-bodied whites, rose or light reds
- Alliums (garlic, onion, shallots): These pair with almost everything!
- Nightshades (tomatoes, bell peppers): Aromatic whites, rose, medium- and full-bodied reds
- Beans and pulses: Sparkling wines, medium reds
- Mushrooms: Full-bodied whites, medium- and full-bodied reds
- Nuts: Aromatic whites, rose or dessert wines
- Fresh herbs: Sparkling whites, light- and full-bodied whites, rose, light reds
It’s also worth remembering that not all wines are suitable for vegetarians and/or vegans. While some people are happy to simply avoid meat in its physical form, others will pay close attention the provenance of specific ingredients in order to avoid anything derived from animal products. Most wines readily-available in shops will give this information on the label, but for more expensive or exclusive wines you may need to check with the producer.