California might have some of the best vegetables in the world, but they don’t always pair well with the equally abundant domestic wines (or imports).
Green, herbal flavors — particularly the extra-delicious ones in artichokes and asparagus -— are particularly hard to match.
Synergies are essential when pairing, and herbal notes in wine interact best with similar ones in vegetables. So grassy New Zealand sauvignon blanc and slightly garden-fresh white wines from France’s Loire Valley might be good starting-point wines.
Sommelier John Wight of Viognier restaurant in San Mateo (and previously of Luce, the Italian restaurant in the InterContinental Hotel in South of Market, and Chinese restaurant Hakkasan) has recommendations.
When pairing wine with meat, for example, it is essential to take into consideration how the dish is cooked (braised, fried, steamed). The cooking style and flavors the style impart, which are often overlooked, are essential to how you pair the dish.
The same is true for choosing the right wines for vegetables. Wight says he looks for a similarity of textures and flavors.
“Obviously, a roasted vegetable is going to have a different texture and flavor than a poached one,” he says. “With the wide varieties of vegetables and preparations out there, there is no hard and fast rule.
“My advice is to stay with clean and oak-free wines such as sauvignon blancs, muscadet, Portuguese dry whites, semillon and verdejo. Cauliflower is relatively neutral, but you roast it and you get an earthy umami that can stand up to light reds,” Wight says.
Sauces also may help to form flavor bridges to other types and styles of wine. The addition of ingredients such as tomatoes or anchovies can also help a pairing to work with a lighter red wine.
Some vegetables we love the most — and those that theoretically are the healthiest — are often the hardest to pair with wine. Kale, many of the Chinese greens like bok choy, and asparagus and artichokes also are challenging.
Wight says with green asparagus, he has found some successful matches with Loire Valley Sancerre that has “a pronounced acidity and green note. I find that they seem to counter balance each other.” Muscadet, from the eastern shores of the same region, also works well.
Pairings are not limited to potentially funky Old World wines, Wight adds. “Sometimes you get lucky with some of the greener, under-ripe styles in California,” he says.
“I often try to go more complementary on the difficult pairings, because I find the customer understands the concept and flavors more easily.”
Most red wines, and particularly those with a lot of oak, won’t work well with these tight, herbal flavors. Their tannins can also clash with vegetal notes and make the wines themselves seem metallic.
Wight agrees, noting, “Under most circumstances, I try to stay away from wines with a lot of oak, as I find the oak makes everything more bitter and awful.”
Sweet wine, which often plays so well with spicy food and Middle Eastern herbs and spices, “will also play havoc with the bitter greens, as it mutes the bitterness and causes your mouth to salivate unpleasantly,” Wight says.
Sparkling wine, be it Champagne or domestic, is also a good bet. And don’t forget delicious Proseccos from Italy and Spanish Cavas, with their acidity and balance, to pair with almost any vegetable in the book.
Liza B. Zimmerman is the principal of the Liza the Wine Chick, a writing and consulting business. She has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has worked almost every angle of the wine and food business, from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.