The vegetarian challenge for wine – and a tip of the toque to Charlie Trotter

My wife has a dilemma: she loves red wine and she is a vegetarian. Granted, by picking the right reds–lighter varieties such as pinot noir, gamay, or poulsard–or the right vegetables–mushrooms or lentils–the problems are surmountable and the results rewarding. Nonetheless, my wife represents what may well be a growing number of Americans who eat less or no meat, urged on by Michael Pollan (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) and Mark Bittman (who recently suggested eating a vegan diet once a week). Heck, there are even vegan bodybuilders! (I also eat a mostly vegetarian diet but enjoy whites more than my wife, which reduces the food-wine pairing dilemma.)

Many wine enthusiasts have drawn a line in the pomace and said no to wines over a certain alcohol percentage. But the changing food preferences of Americans may represent the greater challenge to high-octane reds since they generally make for lousy partners with seafood, lighter, or plant-based fare. And don’t forget spice. Much Indian food is vegetarian and spicy; dousing it with a 15% Chateauneuf du Pape sounds to me more like a recipe for pain, not pleasure. The big reds are easy to pair with the fat and protein of grilled meat but if Americans are feasting less on flesh, the treacly cabernet producers of the world face a challenge (as do the oak barrel makers of the world).

Charlie Trotter is one chef who put vegetarian cuisine literally on equal footing with meats since diners at his restaurant had a choice of either a meat menu or non-meat menu. So with news this week that he is closing his restaurant in August after 25 years, it seemed timely to broach the subject of how a vegetarian diet could impact the wine world. My wife and I have fond memories of Charlie Trotter’s since we lived in the adjacent building after we were married. One dinner we had there that highlighted the difficulties of vegetarian pairings was an all-tomato menu, a challenge for any wine, but particularly challenging to wash down with young Cabernet (unfortunately, I can’t recall what we had).

Anyway, with bacon-drenched everything appearing these days (ice cream, vodka, toothpaste, and the “explosion”), it’s not as if vegetarians are “occupying” the dining rooms of the world’s finest restaurants. But eating less meat appears to have taken hold in America and, for the wines that people actually drink wine (as opposed to collecting and flipping it), this will likely have an impact.

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20 Responses to “The vegetarian challenge for wine – and a tip of the toque to Charlie Trotter”

  1. I’m a vegetarian as well. In my experience, aged reds, even those with higher alcohol levels, tend to work just fine with lighter/ethnic/vegetarian fare since time softens the tannins. I recently was surprised to find that a 14%+ ’97 California merlot—a wine I never would have sought out myself—made a fine, velvety and fruity accompaniment to a spiced bean dish. Perhaps the move toward meatless Mondays will inspire some wine lovers to dust off those older bottles on a weeknight… Just give those big reds 15 years or so and they’ll be perfect with that braised kale.

  2. It’s hard to find a wine that goes really well with borscht. Water is my go-to drink, if that’s the right phrase.

  3. Tyler: Vegetarians and buyers of high-octane reds would seem to be completely different groups (though I’m sure in a country this big, there’s an occasional crossover). I’m not sure the rise of the former necessarily indicates a decline of the latter.

  4. Don’t forget to check the fining agents of your wines too, if you’re vegetarian!

  5. Just a few days ago, we had the Montgras carmenere reserva 2007, with a curried, Winter squash, apple, onion soup (a hit of hard cider reduction too), alongside white bean and kale quesadillas. While we are not vegetarians, we do try to go meat free now and again, as well as look forward to he pairing challenge.

  6. Katherine – Thanks for stopping by and pleased to know you are among the card-carrying ranks of vegetarians. I agree that cabernet with 15 years or so of age can be magical and becomes a much easier partner for vegetarian foods than young and especially high-alcohol and overoaked cabs. Love meatless Mondays!

    Robin – yes, beets are tough. We tackled them once if you need some ideas:

    Blake – yes, I hear you. But I was struck by the WSJ article that reported a decline in meat sales in America. So something big is happening.

    A Jones – for a lacto-ovo-pesco vegetarian, such fining agents present no problem. For a vegan, however, they would. Either way, it’s hard to argue against better labeling.

    Todd – Great attitude! Good luck and in the spirit of our “impossible” pairings, let us know if there’s anything you find particularly challenging.

  7. No problem, with a little thought. We were at Charlie Trotter’s last summer, and found the vegetable/red pairings wonderful. Porcini mushroom tart with black mission fig, fairytale eggplant and goat cheese paired with 2008 Quinto do Crasto Riserva Old Vines Douro; 2007 Heirloom beet “lasagna” with 2007 Cristom “Louise Vineyard” Pinot Noir.

    Mushrooms, squash, pulses and many cheeses will stand up to any reasonable red, and Oregon pinot noir, Burgundy or Beaujolais should do well with a variety of vegetable dishes. Bombastic Cab or Shiraz could be served with grilled vegetables.

    For traditional vegetable dishes, match the region (Nero d Avola with pasta fagiole – my mouth waters as I type this).

    We forget that wine in Europe was historically grown and made by peasants, who ate little meat, except on feast days. On the other hand, they drank wine at every meal.

  8. I’m not sure if the mo’ vegging will have much impact on the monster reds- I would think that a small percentage are consumed with food.

  9. Having been at least a lacto-ovo vegetarian for over 35 years, I`ve not had an issue with wine pairings although I do not have any problem with white wines. I`m wondering in this case if the wife would consider rose Champagne or sparklers. Bubbly goes with just about anything.
    Also, I`m a big fan of pinot noir and there are so many different profiles of pinot, I usually find one that works with most dishes.
    As I think into this a little further, so there are so many different varieties of reds, from Beaujolais to petit sirah, that one certainly must be able to pair a red with a specific course.

  10. Interesting article!

    I’m a vegetarian and red wine lover – part of my New Year’s Resolution’s is to pair my wines better with my cooking. Lots of hearty veggie fare, including beans, soups, sauces will go quite well with hearty reds.

    Agree with Frank’s point above about matching the region – always a good idea as these pairings have had thousands of years to be figured out!

  11. As a former Chicagoan, I have fond memories eating at Charlie Trotter’s while still a vegetarian. I could not agree with you more about the care and thought he put into his vegetarian menu. I am very curious to see what his next restaurant will be like.

  12. i think the problem is that it is really tough to pair monsterous red wines with any food, really. beans and mushrooms seem to be the most common response, and those would work well. winter squash can also provide a hearty partner for a big red.
    my favorite recipe lately is called squale, which is basically just a pan-fried blend of winter squash and kale (i am guilty of adding bacon sometimes…so gauche). makes a great partner for a california merlot or a classic bordeaux, though it might have trouble standing up to a mammoth syrah or cabernet

  13. […] less meat appears to have taken hold in America.” Tyler Colman predicts that this will present a challenge for those who produce high-octane […]

  14. It is too bad that some folks only think of the meat dish when trying to match a wine. Some vegetables really call specifics wines.

    Green beans almost always are better with a Cab or Bordeaux rather than a fruitier merlot.
    Same for Broc and Bean dishes.

    Asperagus will mostly go with sauv blancs.

    Just think of the aromas and flavors and it is not such a difficult task.

  15. I am pescetarian and I love to cook and drink wine. I make vegetarian dishes more savory by cooking down veggie stock to demi-glace or using better than bouillon at high levels. It gives dishes that lip smacking umami that helps them stand up to big reds. I also cook veggies ala Greek briam, at 400 degrees in the oven for a couple of hours, yummmm.

    You have to check out the Michelin starred Ubuntu when you are in Napa, it is great and getting better all the time. Can’t wait till they open back up after taking the winter off.

  16. Also Tyler, I think you forgot the fining agent gelatin which is used in white winemaking to remove astringency and color. There are also porcine gelatines used in the wine industry.

  17. hard cheeses also make a great partner for big red wines.

  18. Frank – Glad that you are able to pair Big Reds and vegetarian cuisine to your satisfaction.

    I appreciate your point about how wine appealed to the lower classes and they may have eaten little meat. But many urban workers in the 19th century had to bring their flagon to fill and pay more for each wine as the alcohol level rose. And the level they had was on the order of 11 or 12% and I’d venture to say the wines didn’t see a lot of time in new oak barriques.

    With many of the Big Reds today, it’s the alcohol and the oak that make them hard to pair with food in general and anything other than the fat and protein of a big steak. IMHO.

    But I do agree that the idea of “if it grows together, it goes together” can be successfully extended to wine.

  19. Hardy – good to see you here. Let’s break out the Venn diagram. 😉

    Blake – Yes, bubbly is a good way to go for many foods that don’t have an obvious wine pairing. While Mrs. Vino is good for a glass of champers, she does prefer a good, lighter bodied red.

    Marie – Good luck with your New Year’s resolution!

    Jameson – Yes, it will be interesting to see what Trotter’s next move will be. At any rate, I’m glad his delivery trucks are no longer blocking my garage.

    Nice, Gabe, glad you are getting into it. But what is this Bordeaux that you talk of? 😉

    GDFO – I think that’s changing, no? With places like Ubuntu and Alain Passard’s L’Arpege (among many others) showing that vegetarian dishes can be cooked at such a high level that they demand reflection for the wine pairing.

    Mr. Zdur – Fining agents do pass through the wine, of course, and any residue in the wine must be in tiny amounts. Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue against better labeling requirements for wine.

  20. Always a difficult challenge for vegetarians to pair wines with meals. As you noted on red wine, “it’s the alcohol and the oak that make them hard to pair with food in general and anything other than the fat and protein of a big steak”. I was vegetarian for 8 years but living in Spain makes it very difficult, they treat tuna as a vegetable, great variety of wine though.


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