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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

In Vino, Vegetas: Wine and Veggies

When it comes to food and wine pairing, we can all be thankful that the old days of “white wine with fish, red wine with meat” are over. Just as important, the assumption that we are always going to eat fish or meat is a non-starter. These days, many of us prefer to eat vegetable-based dishes depending on our mood and /or regimen, and quite a few of us have chosen the path of living as vegetarians or vegans.

How does wine fit with our vegetarian or vegan food choices? Very nicely. The same basic principles and guidelines for pairing wine with food that hold true for meat and fish also hold true for pairing a wonderful wine with a wonderful vegetarian or vegan meal.

But before we talk about pairing Syrah with seitan or Albariño with avocados, let’s discuss the nature of wine itself. Not all wines are – in the strictest sense of the words – vegan or vegetarian. This may come as a surprise to many readers, as we think of wine as fermented grape juice and can’t imagine any animal products being used in its production.

The fact is that while an increasing number of wines are technically vegan, a substantial number of wines still use animal-based products in the “fining” of the wine; clarifying the wine by removing proteins, yeasts, and solid materials that will make the wine cloudy and visually unappealing, or create off-flavors or aromas in the wine. Fining agents act as magnets for unwanted materials, and carry the glop to the bottom of a barrel or a tank. When the wine is “racked” – poured into another holding container – the wine is separated from the solids. Racking is just like decanting, except on a humungous scale.

Fining agents typically used in wineries include egg whites, egg albumin, or casein (milk proteins). So far, this is good news for lacto-ovo vegetarians, but not for strict vegans. However, common fining agents also include gelatin (produced from animal bones), isinglass (made from fish bladders), and chitin (lobster and crab shells). Illegal in both France and the United States, some wine producers will even use bull’s blood to fine their wines.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to animal-based fining agents. The most popular are bentonite clay, diatomaceous earth, and carbon. With all fining agents, only near-undectable traces of the material remain in the finished wine.

Personally, I believe how a wine is fined should not be a major issue for vegans and vegetarians, because of the efficiency of the process. However, I respect the fact that many readers may disagree with me based on dietary, philosophical, or religious grounds. For those who want to make sure that the wine they drink has not been fined with animal and/or dairy-based products, I direct you to the more than two million websites that pop up when you Google “vegan wines.” The first dozen or so sites will provide a substantial, if incomplete, list of vegan wines from all over the world to choose from and to make reasonably informed choices. If you question the fining agents used in some of your favorite wines, do not hesitate to ask your local wine merchant or contact the producers of those wines via the e-mail addresses found on their web sites.

Note: A wine that is labeled as “organic,” or made from organic or biodynamic grapes is not necessarily vegan, and wines made from grapes grown employing less sustainable methods may very well meet the vegan standard.

Enough bad news. The good news is that pairing wines with vegan and vegetarian foods is not only easy, it is also a way to stretch your creative muscles. Honestly, choosing wines for veggie-based dishes can result in some of the most exquisite pairings if we understand a few basic principles.

1. Powerful flavors in food call for powerful wines.
2. Lighter food flavors require lighter wines.
3. Spicy, salty, or smoky flavors in food welcome lighter, fruity reds, and off-dry to semi-sweet whites.
4. You can pair food with wine by creating complementary pairings – the food tastes like the wine (pasta with fresh herbs, olive oil, and olives paired with fresh, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc) – or by contrasting pairings – the food and the wine have opposite flavors and textures (earthy mushroom risotto with fruit-driven Pinot Noir).

When it comes to vegetarian and vegan food and wine pairing a few other party tricks come into play, and this is where you can really get creative. If you’re a lacto-ovo vegetarian (“LOV”), then remember that whole milk or cream, eggs, and cheeses can create real richness in a dish that might traditionally be meat-based (lasagna, for example). If you’re a vegan (“V”), olive oil, seitan, tofu, and especially nuts can add a great deal of “meaty” richness to a dish. Also, whether V or LOV, vegetable-based sauces, reductions, purées, and coulis add layers of flavor and will welcome a heartier wine. Fruit-based sauces and purées can add a subtle sweetness and acidity to a dish, and will welcome a contrasting dose of spices, herbs, or salt.

One of the keys to enjoying a great wine and food match for both LOVs and Vs is to consider the cooking method you apply to a dish. A meal featuring steamed vegetables and brown rice will call for a much lighter wine than one featuring the same vegetables – but grilled and served with an enticing, peppery pasta. Steaming or poaching creates far less flavor intensity in a dish than grilling broiling, roasting or braising. Sauté and pan-frying is right in the middle of the intensity scale.

As you read this, you might think “this wine geek with his rules!” But let me quickly plead my case. First, these are not rules, but guidelines. And I’m really only articulating some common sense practices that just about everyone who loves to cook, loves to eat, and loves to drink wine with food, observe on a daily basis, be they LOV, V, or omnivores (O).

Let’s get specific. Here are some basic veggie-based foods and wines that will almost always work together. These are only some suggestions. Experiment on your own and have fun preparing, serving, and eating a wonderful vegetarian or vegan repast, complete with a glorious wine:

Avocados are rich and sexy, and work beautifully with voluptuously herbaceous, grassy, and fruity whites, such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay from the Hudson Valley, Italy, or Chile, Albariño from Spain, or Moschofilero from Greece.

Beans, Lentils, Pulses: Meaty, high-intensity flavors call for medium-to-full-bodied reds with a dose of tannin and a load of fruit: Syrah (Shiraz), Merlot, Chianti Classico, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Côte du Rhône. Also, dry whites from Alsace, France (they behave like red wines in drag).

Corn: With or without butter, corn is deceptively rich, and was made for oaky Chardonnay.

Couscous with Herbs and Veggies: Dry rosé, sparkling Brut Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, unoaked Chardonnay (such as true Chablis), semi-dry Gewürztraminer or Riesling.

Gazpacho: Vinho Verde from Portugal, Sauvignon Blanc, Rueda from Spain. Also, a light, dry rosé from Provence.

Grilled Vegetables: My favorite. Try a fruity light-to-medium-bodied red, such as Beaujolais-Villages, Rioja Crianza, Dolcetto, or Pinot Noir, an Australian “GSM” (Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre) blend . For whites: Viognier, Fumé Blanc, Gewürztraminer, or Argentine Torrontes.

Hummus / Baba Ganoush / Tabouleh / Falafel: Lemon and/or spice in these dishes calls for Dry to Semi-Dry Finger Lakes Riesling, South African Chenin Blanc, California Sauvignon Blanc, and (believe it or not) White Zinfandel.

Lasagna, Pasticcio, Pastas with Tomato-Based Sauces, Vegetables and Cheese (or Tofu): Where to start? So many medium-bodied, subtly fruity reds to choose from: Nemea from Greece, Chianti Classico from Tuscany, Barbera from Piemonte, Mencia from Bierzo, Spain, Pinot Noir from Oregon or New York State, Zinfandel, Merlot from Washington State, Carmenère from Chile… where to stop?

Mushrooms: Just two words (and one wine) to remember: Pinot Noir. The earty ‘shrooms and the fruit of the Pinot make for The Divine Contrast.

Olives: All from Spain: Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, dry rosé from Navarra or Rioja, bubbly Cava. No better,and no simpler finger food/tapas than good olives and good wine.

Onions: Try an Alsace or Oregon Pinot Gris with a savory onion tart, and a Beaujolais or Côte du Rhône with a traditional onion soup.

Pasta or Risotto with a Melange of Grilled or Sauté Vegetables, or Ratatouille: Dress with a good Extra Virgin Olive Oil and a touch of Balsamic Vinegar, and serve with full-bodied whites, such as California Chardonnay, Viognier, Côte du Rhône Blanc, an Australian Semillon, or Washington State Semillon/Chardonnay blend. Reds: Chianti Classico or Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany, Dão from Portugal, Ribera del Duero from Spain, Pinot Noir, Merlot or Zinfandel from California , or Cabernet Franc from the Hudson Valley or Long Island, an inexpensive, simple, young red Bordeaux. And many more….

Pairing wine with vegetarian/vegan dishes is a healthy practice, and the results can be unexpectedly wonderful and totally tasty. As with all good food, the quality of ingredients – their freshness and seasonality – is paramount. Pairing a great wine with an out of season tomato salad is going to taste as bad as it sounds. But try that salad with a local garden-fresh tomato, local basil and cippolini onions, olive oil, balsamico, and salt and pepper with fresh-baked bread and a glass of Millbrook Tocai Friulano white, and I guarantee happiness at the table.
Plato is said to have uttered the profound and timeless phrase, “In Vino, Veritas” (“In Wine, Truth”). I certainly agree with this ancient Greek wine geek, but let me humbly amend his famous statement with one of my own: In Vino, Vegetas.

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