How to Choose Wine, for Vegetarians and Those Who Love Them

by Nilay Gandhi


It was my first “fine dining” experience-somewhere between 10 and 20 courses with a bottle of wine for each. We were celebrating, thanks to the gracious manager of a boutique wine shop where I once worked. The meal was at one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I’d picked a hell of a time to be a vegetarian. I was that vegetarian, and I sat across from a cured meat expert who ate prosciutto by laying it flat on his face like a hot shave towel so the lardo could melt into his bottom lip. He didn’t just eat meat, he infused it like a tab of acid through his skin.

Meat course after meat course came out for everyone and, for me, a vegetarian alternative. The produce with the protein stripped out. Probably a pasta with extra European butter-or the non-meat part of what my friends were having, but fried. The chef even claimed to have made the risotto with just water.

Let Them Eat… Air
Then, the course everyone had been waiting for: “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” Which was exactly what it sounds like. The meatiest of meat courses. This wasn’t just meat, it was pest control.

And in front of me, the chef placed a tall glass full of red wine. No plate. No Laguiole knife. No fork. I’m surprised there wasn’t a straw.

The wine was called la Tyre, and it tasted like one. A tire, tyranny, exhaustion. Like la Grippe, the wine was a sickness of magnitudes so great that to this day (obviously) I talk about this wine and the scars it left on my tongue.

It was great. And I had no business drinking it, but I did.

But wines like this demand something carnal. Not just meat: meat. Squirrel, moose, maybe even a side of sinister Russian spy. Everyone at the table loved the meal and went on about how well this bone-dry, musky, murky, tannic wine went with it. The tannins cutting through the rich meat, the broth-ey earthiness of both, something about blood and intestinal biopsies… it went on.

And then there was me. Sitting in my little Herman Miller chair, all quiet, my nose two inches beneath the rim of the glass. I don’t know what exactly they smelled, but I picked up on the fresh soil just after the dew. I tasted the leather of my grandfather’s old briefcase, the one where he kept all his pills and balms because he didn’t trust the doctors in America.

It went on and on. It was one of those wine experiences that changes you, makes you understand maybe there is more to this stuff than Two-Buck Chuck.

When I glanced up, there was saliva on unexpected parts of the table, glinting in the moonlight that was by then rippling through. It’s probably just how I choose to remember it, but that course was ravenous. People pointed at me with knives when they asked what I thought of the wine. It’s the only course I remember from that night. Trauma can be a powerful mnemonic.

Nobody asked me if I was hungry. I wasn’t. Some cheese, I’m sure, followed. Maybe biscotti or tiny cookies from the brilliant young pastry chef. I have no idea.

The Point is, There Are No Rules
I try to remember that, now that I am a serrated-card-carrying carnivore, when I sit down to dinner with vegetarians today. What do you do when a vegetarian hits the table? Do you need to change the wines you serve? Or, if you are a vegetarian, when can you try those high-scoring reds your friends keep raving about?

We can all feel a little restricted in our wine choices when meat is off the table. You look at the list at the nice vegetarian restaurants and the reds usually top off at delicate pinot noirs. Great wine, but the kind of stuff Ted Nugent cleans his guns with. After all, they aren’t having steak, lamb shank-better shelf the Bordeaux and Chateauneuf du Pape. Another night of white wine and lapsang souchong tea?

Not at all. While food pairings can be transcendent, I’ve rarely found them requisite. Here’s one good almost-rule guideline: pair good with good and bad with Scotch. Exhibit A: haggis. The rest will work itself out.

Our taste, when it comes to wine, is really just based on references. You think old Bordeaux tastes like pot roast to anyone in India? Or that you’ll ever really understand the smell of sauvignon blanc without adopting three kittens from the shelter?

We find ways to describe things based on what we’ve been through. So putting “meat” wines next to vegetarian dishes, or next to nothing at all, is just another opportunity to explore these expanses in a way that carnivores, actually, just aren’t all that well equipped to do.

Provided that by vegetarian, you mean more just salad, the advice is no advice at all. Drink whatever wine you want. It will usually pair just fine with your friend’s meal, especially if you’re on the lookout for a few key and common veggie victuals.

Salt of the Earth


Starch is a vegetarian’s saving grace, and their backstage pass to all things red. As much as folks seem to insist that vegetarians eat mushrooms or processed gluten and soy products everyday to satisfy their supposed meat cravings, the truth is that carbs get most of them through the day.

And the “meatiest” of carbs are root vegetables. Potatoes, turnips, the somehow-trendy-despite-tasting-like-just-really-terrible-old-celery celeriac-they’ll all stand up to your burliest reds under almost any preparation. (See also: gourds and squashes.)

Root vegetables are wonderful flavor carriers, quickly infusing themselves with whatever fat and herbs are laying around. And salt. You ever have “too-salty” mashed potatoes? They don’t exist. In fact, next time you’re making soup, if you accidentally overseason, toss half a potato in there and pull it out before you serve. They’re the kidneys of the food world, processing and regulating the sodium balance. (Although I suppose with the new haute-butcher craze, kidneys are now the kidneys of the food world.)

Normally, when salt hits the dry tannins in your big red wines, well, babies die. Galaxies collapse. Iago enters stage left and scrapes your tongue with a hot comb. As Robert Harrington writes in Food and Wine Pairing: A Sensory Experience, “salt magnifies the negative aspects inherent in wine.”

But the root vegetables hide all that, balancing the seasoning well enough to give you a tasty dish without overwhelming your tongue.

Setting aside our vegan friends, no vegetarian worth her salt makes root vegetables without loads of butter. Think of that richness as you would the marbling in a great steak. Fat mellows a wine’s toughness, like hot oil rubbed into a late-shift knot in your shoulders, calming an otherwise aggressive red wine and making it easier to drink. (For the vegans, the right olive oil can do something close.)

At the end of the day, I would probably want my young Barolos and Brunellos with a charred, truffle-flecked Chianina T-bone-but some tender gnocchi (with some truffles, if you’ve got them) would actually do just as well.

The Smell of Success
Like I said, the first thing I did at that dinner of mine was dive my nose deep into the wine glass-before I even said thank you. Whether out of compulsion or lust, it’s what we all do. It’s why they make such crazy-enormous glasses in the first place.

So odd, then, that this “red with meat” thing has gone on so long, considering that meat itself smells like either nothing, its vegetarian-friendly seasonings or death. As much as we might think we’re pairing our burly reds with equally beastial corpses and the surging adrenaline of slaughter, we’re actually often pairing more the aromatics than anything else.

For instance: take the smoky char of the grill against the tar and leather smells of some small-market Tuscan wine or Napa cabernet. The garrigue of provincial herbs and black pepper-on a piece of moose meat or eggplant all the same-beside the spicy earthiness of a brooding southern French tannat.

See, at that dinner of mine, while everyone assumed the poor little vegetarian couldn’t experience the great pairing, there I was taking it all in. Smelling not only my wine and the blank placesetting in front of me, but also their Rockies and Bullwinkles, which even in its absence was great with my wine.

Previously: How to Face Down the Wine List and Win

Nilay Gandhi is the proprietor of the excellent wine blog 750 mL; he even gives personalized wine pairing advice on request.

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Photo by Jessica Spengler and Noël Zia Lee from Flickr.