Red Wine and ... Beans?



"Red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat."

This old rule of thumb still works surprisingly well as a general reference, if you're willing to ignore such precedent-shattering delights as roast chicken with Cabernet Sauvignon or grilled salmon with Pinot Noir.

But here's where the principle really breaks down: What's the best wine choice with vegetarian fare?

Frankly, it's hard to be a serious wine lover and shun meat. The joy of a perfect match between a fine red wine and a rare steak or juicy leg of lamb, the delicious marriage between a first-rate white and a fresh fillet of fish ... these things are simply too good to give up lightly.

But now and then, to cut down fat consumption and for a change of pace, we'll choose a meatless dinner.

As many of us move toward more heart-healthy cuisine, with lower fat and less animal flesh, the question of matching wine with vegetable entrees becomes one of more than academic interest.

Unfortunately, it's also a little tricky.

Over more than 5,000 years, wine has evolved as the perfect beverage to accompany food, and by and large, it has done so within a carnivorous culture that considers no meal complete without meat, poultry or fish. We've developed a taste for wines that present dry (non-sweet), tart qualities along with natural fruit flavors, because these flavor components complement the meats we eat. The steely acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc cuts through the "fishy" flavor of seafood as effectively as lemon juice; the tannins and tart-fruit taste of dry red table wines are as felicitious as the herbs that add piquancy to lamb, pork or beef.

Until now, vegetables have played a supporting role, and rarely enter into the equations for matching food and wine.

So I'd like to propose a set of new rules, based on similar principles, but without the meat:

  • For "white meat," substitute "green" vegetables."
  • For "red meat," substitute "brown vegetables."
Lean, clean white wines with crisp acidity seem to dance best to the tune of delicate entrees fashioned from fresh green vegetables.

So, if the centerpiece of your meatless meal is green and fresh, whether it's a spinach quiche, a vegetarian risotto or a bowl of green beans, break out the white wines and bubblies and serve them well chilled. (Just remember to avoid vinegar-based salad dressings, which "fight" with any wine.)

Among other vegetarian entrees that seem to be designed for whites, try a bowl of Tuscan beans: White beans gently simmered in a Dutch oven with onion and a dash of sage, served with a drizzle of fruity olive oil, accompanied with a steely, inexpensive White Burgundy like a Macon-Villages or low-end Chablis.

Or try chopping cabbage cooked until it's just crisp tender, and folding it with browned onion bits and lots of black pepper into mashed potatoes to make a warming, all-vegetable main dish that's just about perfect with the unctuous, faintly bitter dry quality of an Alsatian Riesling or Gewurztraminer.

A creamy Fettuccine Primavera is a wonderful foil for a special Chardonnay, in which case you can even skip the vegetables entirely and simply present the fine white wine against the background of Fettuccine Alfredo.

Meanwhile, when you're in the mood for a hearty red wine, it's time to trot out the robust vegetarian dishes featuring the "brown" vegetables -- beans, carrots, potatoes and the other winter root vegetables that stick to your ribs and comfort your soul.

Hold the reds for the hearty vegetarian entrees that can harmonize: Macaroni and cheese, robust lasagnas, and, maybe best of all, the international range of filling bean-and-cheese dishes.

A bean-and-cheese enchilada, for instance, provided that it's not so fiery hot as to demand beer as the only logical accompaniment, works almost as well as roast beef with reds, particularly the light, fruity reds such as Italian Dolcetto, French Beaujolais, or the California Beaujolais equivalent made from the Gamay grape.

Add tomatoes to the mix, as in a hearty pasta e fagioli, the macaroni and bean dish that Sicilian dialect immortalizes as "pasta fazool," and you'll have a meatless dinner-in-a-dish that's just right with fruity red wines like the Italian Chiantis and the whole range of robust red wines from the Rhone Valley of France.

The earthy flavor of eggplant makes another first-rate vegetable counterpoint to the melody of red wine, and adding cheese (as in Eggplant Parmigiana) makes it even better. Ditto for almost any entree involving fresh or dried wild mushrooms: The delicate earthiness of porcini, shiitakes, chanterelles and morels makes them a natural partner for the similar subtleties of the finest red Burgundies and other high-quality Pinot Noirs.

Perceptive readers may already be noticing a pattern here, and it's a tough one for deeply committed dieters to bear: To make a vegetarian dish truly wine-friendly, it's almost necessary to include some fat or oil, either as an ingredient or in a component (like cheese, beans or tofu) rich in F-A-T. A totally lean meal somehow lacks the oomph to stand up to even the most delicate wines: Try a spear of celery with a sip of Chablis, and I think you'll see what I mean.

A bit of butter, a handful of pine nuts, a mound of fresh-grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, a drizzle of olive oil ... these are the secret ingredients that turn a plate of vegetables into a dish that complements the wine in your glass.

In my opinion, a non-meat meal every now and then is a decent way to cut back on fat a little, and even if you add some cheese or butter back, the percentages will work out OK.

And the nicest thing about it is that a light vegetarian meal with a loaf of good bread and a glass of wine is one of the easiest ways to pamper yourself with a quick-and-easy repast that's good for you.

For another report on matching wine and vegetarian fare,
see A Vegetarian Wine Dinner.