I think it’s safe to say that most wine drinkers have had their palates trained by sipping wine in tandem with animal flesh, be it a rare steak, filet of fish or roast chicken. Therefore, we’re accustomed to reaching for wines which complement the meats that typically serve as centerpieces of a meal. Just as fresh lemon juice knifes through the fishiness of a sole filet, so does a crisp, acidic Sauvignon Blanc. The tannins in red wine help to cut through the fat and protein in meat. And so it goes. But fear not. Just because you’re not supping on prime rib doesn’t mean that you have to drink wimpy wines.
Try to think of vegetable dishes in terms of “dark” and “light” or “red vs. white.” In other words, when choosing a wine to eat with a vegetable, grain or legume-based dish, it’s helpful to consider the “weight” of the dish. A vegetarian cassoulet or grilled Portabella mushroom, for example, would be heavier and more robust than a springtime vegetable risotto. The more robust the dish, the more likely that it will pair nicely with a robust red wine. Earthy mushrooms and roasted winter root vegetable dishes are prime candidates for earthy reds like Pinot Noir. Hearty bean dishes are terrific with fruity red wines like Syrah/Shiraz, while lighter white bean-based meals—pasta e fagioli, for instance—work nicely with Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris.
One of the all-time classic wine pairings is French Champagne and caviar. But don’t fret. Just because you’ve eschewed fish (or fish eggs) doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself to a killer bottle of Champagne. For a decadent brunch treat or late night snack, this is hard to top: Softly scramble fresh eggs with a little cream and butter, then liberally shave black truffles on top. Sip Champagne alongside and go straight to heaven. Nibbling on chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese with Champagne is another delightful way to spend the day. Also, since the yeast in Champagne complements the yeast in soy sauce, bubbly is often a good choice for Chinese and Japanese vegetable dishes steeped in soy.
One of the most notoriously difficult vegetables to mate with wine is asparagus. Volumes have been written by wine geeks about the dos and don’ts of asparagus and wine. Most suggest simply abandoning wine with asparagus: drink water. I disagree. I love asparagus, and I’m not going to ditch my wine because of it. First, consider how the asparagus is served. Is it raw? Grilled? Served with hollandaise? I like grilled asparagus, slightly charred and sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano in tandem with Rhone wines like Syrah. On the other hand, simple steamed asparagus with butter works with oaky, creamy, non-grassy white wines like white Burgundy. Again, with all vegetable dishes, consider the sauce, method of preparation and other accoutrements, not just the veggie itself.
However, if I were to choose a single vegetarian wine—one that works pretty well across the spectrum, but especially with green vegetables—it would be … Austrian Grüner Veltliner. G-V should be on the wine list of every vegetarian restaurant.