A dinner party guest suddenly announces that they are vegetarian. Fear not, it is possible to find a wine to match – in fact many veggie dishes pair surprisingly well with gutsy wines, says Fiona Beckett

A dinner party guest suddenly announces that they are vegetarian. Fear not, it is possible to find a wine to match – in fact many veggie dishes pair surprisingly well with gutsy wines, says Fiona Beckett

These days it’s a familiar problem: you invite friends over and plan to open some treasured bottles. Then you discover that one is a vegetarian. What to do? Eat what you originally planned, making separate dishes for the veggies? Or make everyone eat vegetarian food and serve less interesting wines?

The panic often stems from stereotyping vegetarian food as light and salady – ‘rabbit food’ as its detractors scornfully describe it. In fact there’s as wide a range of flavours in vegetable-based dishes as in meat-based ones – they just need a slightly more creative approach.

The obvious difference between vegetable-based and meat-based cooking is the absence of raw or rare protein and animal fat which both tame the tannins of full-bodied young reds and oakier whites. There are two ways round that if you want to drink a fine red wine. The first is to produce palate-coating alternatives in the form of sauces, purées or other ingredients such as cheese or pulses that will build a bridge to your red.

‘If you’re looking to match the top wines of the world in a mature state, such as the best of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany and Napa, you need a dish that is classic, harmonious and balanced, whether it’s based on meat or vegetables,’ says former sommelier Larry Stone, now general manager of Rubicon Estate. ‘I like grain and mushroom dishes with a mushroom stock and red wine reduction myself but you could equally well serve farfel or spaetzle (Jewish or German noodles) with a truffle reduction (made with reduced vegetable stock, red wine, a touch of kombu (Japanese seaweed) for body, and truffles); kasha (Eastern European porridge) with porcini stock and roasted porcini or risotto with chanterelles, cippolini onions, white wine, Parmesan and butter.’

Alexis Gaulthier, chef at London-based Roussillon, which has had a vegetarian menu since it opened in 1998, thinks along similar lines. ‘A dish such as risotto with black truffles cooked with brown butter and a bit of parmesan is perfectly able to take a red wine.

‘You can work with any kind of wine, it depends how you cook your vegetables and the time of year. In spring the register is likely to be light and mineral, whereas in autumn and winter you can be dealing with ingredients that are quite strongly flavoured such as salsify and celeriac.’

Other red wine-friendly ingredients include beans and other pulses, polenta, cooked tomato sauces, aubergines and cheese. ‘Add aged hard cow’s milk cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano, Saenkanter Gouda, Mimolette or Keen’s Cheddar to a vegetarian dish and you’ll improve its compatibility,’ says Larry Stone.

The other strategy is to modify your wines. ‘The trick with a vegetable-based menu is to go with wines that are a bit more mature; ones that have more finesse and elegance and less tannin,’ says Yannick Chaloyard, general manager and wine buyer for Morgan M in Islington, which also has a ‘From the Garden’ menu.

Fred Brugues, head sommelier of Pierre Gagnaire’s London restaurant Sketch, takes a slightly different approach with the vegetarian menu served at the Lecture Room and Library. ‘The key word for me with vegetarian food is freshness so I look for cooler growing areas – the Loire, for example, rather than Argentina or Chile. Matching wine to vegetarian food is an opportunity to use small vintages rather than great ones. If you’re talking about red Bordeaux, 2002 is a good vintage for vegetarian food – as it’s more approachable and subtle than 2003 or 2000.

Even bearing in mind these caveats it’s easy to misjudge the power of a quality red. Brugues served a 2002 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir from Martinborough with a richly flavoured dish of braised chicory with a spinach velouté, and although the sweetness of the fruit was a good counterpoint to the bitterness of the chicory and spinach, it still overpowered the dish. His alternative pairing of a crisp, minerally 2004 Loimer Grüner Veltliner Kaferberg was far better.

It is in fact these lighter, crisper, more elegant white wines that really come into their own with vegetarian food, especially at this time of year. I remember Michel Bras serving his famous ‘gargouillou’ of vegetables with a simple local white wine that cost t15 on his list and it struck just the right note. (How many three Michelin-starred restaurants would dare do that!) Chaloyard at Morgan M had a similar pairing – a crisp vin du Gers with a creamy white bean soup flavoured with lemon confit. With delicate preparations, the wine must sometimes play second fiddle.

Vegetable-based menus are here to stay – and it’s not just vegetarians who are opting for them. Your cellar may well have to accommodate a vegetarian-friendly selection sooner rather than later if it has not already had to do so.

Tricks for veggies

To match rich whites, add:

n Rich unctuous purées enriched with cream and/or butter

n Vegetable gratins with crispy toppings

n Nuts (especially almonds and hazelnuts). They pick up on the flavour of oak, especially oaked whites

n Roasted pinenuts or pumpkin seeds

n Pulses such as lentils and coco beans

n A little cream to vinaigrettes

n Sweet, rich vegetables such as sweet potato, butternut squash and roast red peppers

To match medium–full-bodied reds:

n Add warm spices such as cinnamon, ginger and five spice (though use the latter in moderation)

n Enhance flavour by roasting, grilling and barbecuing

n Use miso or soy sauce (even Marmite) in sauces to replicate meaty flavours

n Drizzle aged balsamic vinegar over your food

n Add shaved cheeses such as Parmesan and Asagio

n Add mushrooms, especially porcini and chestnuts

Five restaurants for haute vegetarian

n L’Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, Arles

www.rabanel.com

n Charlie Trotters, Chicago

www.charlietrotters.com

n Morgan M, Islington, London

www.morganm.com

n Roussillon, Pimlico, London

www.roussillon.co.uk

n Sketch, Mayfair, London

www.sketch.uk.com

Written by Fiona Beckett