Can red wine sing without meat?

“Red wine was made to go with meat, and it just won’t work without it.” I used to say that a lot, based on considerable experience and tasting. But I’m no longer so sure that it’s true.

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Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to be said for the classic pairing of Brunello or Burgundy with rare beef, Bordeaux with lamb, Riesling with freshwater fish, Sancerre with oysters, etc., etc., ad infinitum. These combinations evolved over time based on the simple reality that they really work.

But as I wrote in a column last August, “Eat your veggies … with wine?” meatless dining is trending. Whether you’re a Baby Boomer or Millennial or anything in-between, there’s a fair chance that you’ve at least taken a look at reducing meat in your diet. Whether it’s health or environmental concerns or fear of the excesses of industrial agriculture, an awful lot of us have given “Meatless Mondays” a try or even taken a whirl at a vegetarian diet or even hard-core veganism.

But most of us, or most who are reading this column, anyway, are probably more likely to try skipping the meat course than shunning the wine! So, in that column last August, I touched on a few key building blocks toward cooking (or ordering in a restaurant) , meatless dishes that work well with red wine.

Go for the bold, I advised, taking advantage of browning – the “Maillard reaction,” to build meat-friendly flavors in as you saute or roast your vegetable ingredients. Choose ingredients with earthy, rich flavors – tomatoes, mushrooms, lentils, other beans – that stand up naturally to red wine. Cheese is a natural, assuming you haven’t gone full-bore vegan.

Continuing to pursue this quest, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the real secret to making veggie-based dishes whose flavors pop, bringing them up to even the iconic dry red wines, is to bring in what the Japanese call the “fifth flavor,” umami.

Mushroom risotto

Mushroom risotto kicked up with umami flavors to meet red wine.

This has become a culinary buzzword in recent years as the rest of the world discovered a secret that Japanese chefs have known for centuries: Ingredients that contain glutamic acid – basically, all the items I listed above, plus miso, soy sauce, edible seaweed and more – contribute a palate-pleasing flavor that isn’t sweet, isn’t sour, isn’t bitter, isn’t salty; isn’t any of those traditional four flavors. Some call it “savory,” but as I consciously seek to build umami into vegetable-based cooking, I’ve come to think of it as “meaty.” In short, it puts back the missing element that makes red meat such an excellent companion to red wine.

Looking for a meatless dish that would really work with the good, affordable Riojas (reviewed below) that I had lined up for this month’s Wine Focus in our WineLovers Discussion Group I followed standard risotto technique to make a mushroom risotto, but kicked it up umami-wise in several ways: I used fresh brown crimini rather than white mushrooms, and I added reconstituted dried porcini to the mix. I saved the porcini soaking water to use as the risotto liquid, and simmered the mushroom stems in it to add still more flavor. I boosted the umami quotient even more by adding tomato paste and small dashes of soy sauce and sesame oil. A good ration of grated Grana Padano cheese and organic butter finished off a dark, rich risotto that went startlingly well with the dry, full Tempranillo-based wines. Umami for the win!


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Today’s Tasting Reports: Two Tempranillo-based Riojas

San Pedro Apostol 2012 “Campellares” Alta Rioja Tempranillo ($12.99)

San Pedro Apostol

A single-varietal, 100% Tempranillo, this wine is dark reddish purple with a clear violet edge. Juicy red-plum and black-cherry aromas are joined by an earthy back note of leather. Flavors mirror the nose, bright and clean. Mouth-watering acidity surrounds fresh but subtle cherry-berry fruit with an earthy hint of leather; palate-cleansing and food-friendly, 13.5% alcohol stays in the background. Tart cherries linger in a long finish. U.S. importer: Grapes of Spain Inc., Lorton, Va.; Selected by Aurelio Cabestrero. (April 2, 2016)

FOOD MATCH: Umami flavors kick up an intense mushroom risotto with fresh crimini and dried porcini, making it a serious match with this red wine. On the second night, another intensely flavered dish works with the red wine from a different perspective, dressing farfalle pasta with a spring pesto of asparagus and cilantro with garlic, Grana Padano cheese and a little butter

WHEN TO DRINK: The best Tempranillo-based wines of Rioja are capable of considerable evolution with time in a temperature-controlled cellar. In these lower price ranges, though, it probably makes more sense to drink them up within a few years, while they are as fresh and delicious as this.

VALUE: This fine red is an excellent value in the lower teens, and I’d buy it again at this price. That said, it’s an even better value if you can find it closer to the $10 median price reported on

Bodegas San Pedro Apostol’s colorful website is primarily in Spanish, but you’ll find a downloadable fact sheet on the Campellares Rioja here. Importer Grapes of Spain offers a similar fact sheet at this link.

FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: shows only limited vendors for San Pedro Apostol 2012 “Campellares” Alta Rioja Tempranillo.

To find other wines and producers from Rioja Alta, along with a brief discussion of the region and its wines, check this page on

To find other U.S. vendors, look up your state’s distributors, listed on this page at importer Grapes of Spain.

Bodegas Forcada 2010 “Flor de Baco” Crianza Rioja ($11.99)

Flor de Baco

A typical Rioja blend of Tempranillo (85%), Garnacha (10%), and Graciano (5%), this wine is dark purple in the glass, shading to garnet, transparent at the edge. There’s a lot of sweet, vanilla oak in the nose, as you might expect from a “Crianza,” a Rioja designation for wines aged at least 12 months in oak and 12 more in bottles. Lurking behind the oak, though, there’s subtle and complex red fruit, cherries and red berries, that carry over onto the palate with good, food-friendly acidity, 14% alcohol, and soft tannins. U.S. importer: Catwine USA LLC, Nicholasville, Ky. (April 12, 2016)

FOOD MATCH: We tried meatless matches using the intriguing, Beyond Meat “beefless crumbles,” a surprisingly convincing plant-based meat substitute, to make spaghetti with meat sauce on the first night and mushroom-and-“meat” sauce on the second.

WHEN TO DRINK: Not a long ager, but given that keeping the leftover wine overnight seemed to bring the fruit and oak into better balance, it might benefit from two or three years under good cellar conditions.

VALUE: This fine red is an excellent value in the lower teens, and I’d buy it again at this price. That said, it’s an even better value if you can find it closer to the $10 median price reported on

Bodegas Forcada offers its website in Spanish and English. Click the UK flag at upper right for English-language pages. Click here for information on the Rioja Crianza, or go to this page to download a more detailed English-language file.

Again, shows only limited availability for Bodegas Forcada 2010 “Flor de Baco” Crianza Rioja.

For a wide selection of other Riojas in a broad range of prices, visit this page.


Wine Focus: Tempranillo

We’re talking about Tempranillo in this month’s Wine Focus on our WineLovers Discussion Group (WLDG) and our WineLoversPage Facebook page.

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