There’s a myth in the American wine world that needs to be put to bed. The idea is that pairing wine with vegetarian food is nearly impossible, especially when it comes to flavorful veggies like asparagus and artichokes.
Not so, says Lauren Friel, wine director of Dirt Candy in New York City. In fact, pairing vegetarian fare with wine is not only easy, it’s also incredibly interesting — and fun.
Friel should know. Arguably New York’s best vegetarian restaurant, Dirt Candy has been recognized by the Michelin Guide for five consecutive years, and was the first vegetarian restaurant to receive two stars from The New York Times. Chef and owner Amanda Cohen has created one of the most interesting tasting menus in the city, with serious wine pairings to boot.
Friel sat down with VinePair to discuss why so many people are intimidated by pairing wine with vegetarian food, and shared her tips and tricks for easing that fear.
Our sole reason for this aversion to vegetarian wine pairings has to do with how we were introduced to wine pairings in the first place, Friel says. “We first encountered wine pairing in America through traditional French fine dining in the ’80s,” she says. “These restaurants were animal-heavy, utilizing lots of meats and rich sauces. These were foods that demanded powerful wines to stand up to them.
“Having gotten used to this kind of cuisine and the wines that went with it,” Friel continues, “we began to have this false idea that more delicate foods, of which vegetables are one, just couldn’t match well with wine.” In reality, many cultures have been pairing wine with plant-centric meals for centuries. Italian, Greek, and other Mediterranean cuisines are incredibly vegetarian-dominant, and their wines match the flavors of dishes like cacio e pepe perfectly.
“When in doubt, my No. 1 tip is what grows together goes together,” Friel says. “If you’re making a dish with Italian influences, look to the wines of the region where the dish originates. You are more than likely to find wines that were created in order to go well with the cuisine.”
If, on the other hand, you’re not sure from what region or country a vegetarian or plant-based dish originates, Friel has other strategies.
When in doubt, bubbly goes well with everything.
“Sommeliers love sparkling wine and there’s a reason why: It’s an ace up our sleeve,” says Friel. Bubbly is great 100 percent of the time. There is a naturally high acidity that pairs well with vegetables, especially if they’ve been fried, and cleansing bubbles which keep your palate fresh. “A lot of our dishes at Dirt Candy are deep and unctuous.” Friel says. “Sparkling wine as well as pet-nat are often my go-to pairing.”
If you’re looking for a white, coastal varieties are best.
Coastal white wines such as Assyrtiko from Santorini, Greece, and Vermentino from Sardinia, Italy, are mineral-driven and pair well with vegetables. “The strong minerality of the wine works perfectly, especially with the often-feared pairing of artichokes and asparagus that many people claim is impossible,” Friel says.
Fruity, fleshy reds are best.
If the dish is spicy, you can’t go wrong with Riesling or another aromatic white.
Often when people are having a strictly vegetarian meal it’s Indian or Asian, and these cuisines usually contain a lot of spice. For this type of food, Riesling really is the best way to go. The wine helps cut through the dominating spicy flavors.
At the end of the day, Friel’s main piece of advice is to drink what you like, and don’t take the pairings so seriously. “Vegetables aren’t these delicate things that need to be treated as precious objects,” she says. “They’re hardy. You can do a lot with them and can pair lots of wine with them too.”