The world of cuisine is undoubtedly at a turning point… because vegetables are all the rage! From London to San Francisco, all the way to Paris, Chicago and New York, many of the finest restaurants are adding some high-priced vegetarian options to their menu, and making sure their suppliers get the credit they deserve. Families everywhere are welcoming organic veggies into their kitchens, and choosing to forgo meat. This is in part due to the bad press meat has been getting in the past few years: unhealthy for humans and harmful to the planet, somewhat controversial insofar as the ethical treatment of animals is concerned, and so on.
Given this new veggie trend, is it possible to pair, for example, artichokes with your favourite Crozes-Hermitage 2005, without one overshadowing the other?
It’s challenging, to say the least, when most sommeliers tend to give vegetables a bad rap, especially when it comes time to pairing them with a bottle of red. But some experts say this view is out-dated and shows a lack of knowledge when it comes to vegetarian cuisine.
“Vegetarian dishes can be just as rich, savoury and delicious as meat-based ones. Think wild mushrooms, roasted buckwheat, grilled nuts, red-wine reduction and vegetable broth . . . all examples of ingredients capable of giving a dish depth and personality,” explains American master sommelier and wine producer, Larry Stone (who, according to Wine Spectator, is considered to be one of the most renowned sommelier instructors in America).
Based out of San Francisco, Stone is one of the rare sommeliers to include a class on vegetarian cuisine in his sommelier course load. According to him, the best red wines in the world, whether from Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Napa or Tuscany, pair best with vegetarian dishes when they have attained full maturity and are low in harsh tannins and acidity.
A few thousand kilometres from San Francisco, the head sommelier of Pierre Gagnaire’s London restaurant, Sketch Lecture Room and Library, says he prefers to focus on freshness when it comes to pairing the 100% vegetarian menu created by his boss. His favourites? Reds that hail from cooler climates, like Loire or New Zealand.
Certain cooking methods, such as braising, grilling (for caramelizing), reductions, as well as the addition of truffles or Parmesan, also make for dishes that pair beautifully with full-bodied reds.
“Many vegetables just naturally go well with aged reds that boast silky, smooth tannins,” explains Stone. Such is the case with roasted artichokes, celery root and roasted root vegetables served with cinnamon, ginger or clove, and seasoned with kombu seaweed, miso or tamari. Stone frequently suggests that his customers pair their polenta, eggplant or roasted tomato sauces with reds from Tuscany or Napa. “Hard cheeses made from cow’s milk, such as Parmesan, Asiago, aged cheddar and Mimolette, also go nicely with vegetarian cuisine and a glass of red,” adds Stone.
THE EXPERT OPINION FROM QUEBEC
The pairing guidelines that these fine restaurants apply can be explained by Quebecer François Chartier. According to Chartier, it’s the combination of fat and the Maillard reaction (caramelizing of fibres) that makes the combination of meat and red wine so delectable and the tannins so supple. “When pairing vegetables with red wine, all you have to do is opt for a cooking method that develops the same molecules as grilled meat, the pyrazines that are found in a cabernet-sauvignon or a merlot,” explains Chartier. Other ingredients, such as grilled wild rice, coffee, cacao and smoky black tea, also go well with red wine, as they are made up of the same compounds.
“These are flavour enhancers belonging to the umami group (one of the five basic tastes, together with sweetness, saltiness, bitterness and sourness), just like meat. Other vegetables in this group include parsnips, rutabagas, artichokes and grilled asparagus,” explains Chartier. Other perfect pairings? Sautéed mushrooms in coconut milk would go beautifully with a barrel-aged white, a Saint-Émilion, a Pomerol or a barrel-aged Californian merlot. And why? Because wines such as these have the same molecular profile as mushrooms and coconut milk.
So, after all this, can anyone really still say that vegetarian cuisine doesn’t pair perfectly with some of the best red wines in the world?
We didn’t think so.
[Excerpt of an article written by Anne-Louise Desjardins, issue of Cellier]