For most, Christmas dinner revolves around the idea of a standout meat dish at the centre of the table. Yet this is no longer the rule for everyone; many of us have now switched to vegetarian or vegan diets and it’s hard to hold a celebration without having to accommodate different, meat-free preferences.
Rather than a hindrance, this should be seen as a great opportunity to bring new flavours to the festive table and also think of wine pairing possibilities that go beyond the ‘which wine shall I have with turkey’ dilemma.
Nut roast and beyond
The go-to replacement dish for that rebellious vegetarian / vegan friend or relative was, for a long time, the infamous nut roast.
Infamous because many vegetarians will tell you there are a number of more exciting, less obvious and easier to cook alternatives (more on that below).
Having said that, a good nut roast is indeed delicious and usually ends up being eaten by everyone! Its crunch and smokiness can actually be compared to that of lamb, namely when spices and herbs are also a central part of the recipe.
The comparable smokiness of an orange wine will be a great fit, as will the herbal profile of a Vacqueyras from the Southern Rhône or the trademark tapenade aromas of a Naoussa Xinomavro.
Vegetarian Christmas meals: The beauty of simplicity
The truth is that the best vegetarian dishes, while bound to delight even the most avid meat-eater, are simple and based on only a handful of ingredients.
If you’re not vegetarian yourself, pleasing the vegetarian guest is all about integrating the veggie dishes as part of the whole meal, so that everyone can enjoy them – and their accompanying wines, of course.
A nice selection of deliciously roasted vegetables, brought to life by the smokiness of the grill, the complexity of spices and the depth of a good olive oil, is a great dish in itself with a dollop of labneh or sprinkled with feta. It also makes a great side for a turkey or meat roast.
And those roasted veggies will handle – and ask for – a structured red, with firm tannins and good concentration, as much as the reddest of meats.
A mezze spread, with delightful dips, a colourful selection of olives, spiced nuts, marinated aubergines and marinated beetroots, is also something you should consider.
It makes a great aperitif selection but also allows guests, vegetarian or not, to nibble throughout the meal.
Pair it with a refined Pinot Noir or a Mencía from Galicia; their fresh minerality will allow you to appreciate the diversity and subtlety of flavours.
Another great option alongside mezze – especially at the start of a meal – would be a refreshing and delicious pétillant naturel wine, also known as pét-nat.
The structure, broad palate and restrained effervescence of a pét-nat will deliver such a great balancing act.
Cheese, real or fake, but never with red
Well now, there’s no Christmas without a proper cheese selection is there? And this should definitely be the case this year, when so many producers had their livelihood threatened by lockdown restrictions.
It’s worth looking out for local cheeses and making the effort to support small dairy farms rather than buying at the supermarket.
Although cheese and wine pairing is usually, and outrageously, associated with red wine, it is best to look elsewhere in many cases.
The tannins bind with the fats in the cheese and prevent the full appreciation of all those complex and delicious flavour compounds that the best cheeses have.
Look to structured, medium-to-high acid white wines and this complexity really comes to life. Try a robust California Chardonnay, an aged Mosel Riesling or a white Rioja and you’ll be a little closer to heaven.
Orange wines will again be a good option, because the intensity and high acidity will enhance the umami characters in the cheese. But, once again, you should avoid skin-contact wines with too much tannin.
For vegans, the choice of non-dairy ‘cheese’ is increasingly appealing and diverse.
These are usually made with fermented seeds and nuts, helping them to develop texture and flavours that are, well, very cheesy.
The same wines that pair well with cheese will therefore also be great companions to their vegan counterparts. But it’s worth pointing out that, when considering vegan diets and guests, you will need to make sure that the wine itself is vegan-friendly!
The golden rule: always have good fizz within reach
It’s worth stating the obvious here: always have a good bottle of sparkling wine close by. Not only is it the trademark celebratory drink and the best crowd-pleaser, but it is also the ultimate food pairing wine.
Think past the world of oysters and canapés, because the right fizz can be perfect with a variety of dishes, from roast chicken to pasta with leeks or even cheese.
So it’s worth investing in some good bubbles, which would work equally well as an aperitif or alongside some of the main meal’s dishes. Sparkling wines are often an ideal option when vegetarian dishes take centre stage.
Try an English sparkling rosé with a plate of creamy pasta or a sparkling Vouvray with a nut roast.
And if you’ve never tried a cheese platter with a late-disgorged Champagne, full of toasty aromas and pastry-like flavours, you’d be mad not to have a go.