This time of year makes me crave and consume copious amounts of meat. You could chalk this up to evolution. Once upon a time, a diet that included meat-based protein greatly increased your chances of surviving what must have been some pretty brutal pre-historic cold spells. So in that very spirit, last week's Swirl Girl blog on winter comfort wines focused on the bottles best suited to pair with meat.
Unless you're a vegetarian, in which case those recommendations might have seemed pretty unhelpful.
Having said that, the process of pairing wines with vegetarian dishes (or any other kind of dishes, for that matter) doesn't necessitate a fundamentally different formula. In fact, there are really only three "rules" to follow if you want to marry vegetarian food and wine like a pro. You can go with any one of them and end up in good shape; or you could go crazy and consider taking all three into account the next time you're whipping up a tasty vegetarian feast.
The "Regional" Method: This one's as straightforward as it gets. Pick and pour a wine that's from the same region as the food you're about to serve it with.
Why It Works: People have been making wine for literally thousands of years in most old-world wine producing regions. In fact, they're probably the ones who coined the old adage "what grows together, goes together." Not surprising, considering that wine made from the vineyards they'd planted right next to their vegetable gardens likely wound up on the same dinner table.
Winning Vegetarian Wine Pairing: Linguine with eggplant, olive and tomato caponata + Tasca d'Almerita Regaleali Nero d'Avola 2006 ($15). Caponata hails from the southern Italian region of Sicily, so its rich bold flavor is the perfect partner in crime for all the ripe and juicy berry action you're gonna get from the nero d'avola grape grown in the very same region.
The "Cooking Technique" Method: Essentially, choose your wine based upon how much the food is going to be cooked.
Why It Works: Simply put, the more the food is cooked, the heartier the style of wine that you can ostensibly pair with it. Still not tracking? Stir-frying = less change; roasting = more change.
Winning Vegetarian Wine Pairing: Sautéed portobello mushrooms over creamy polenta + Tohu Marlborough Cuvee Pinot Noir 2006 ($14). Because the mushrooms are sautéed, they retain much of their original texture and flavor profile. Pinot and mushrooms go together like peas and carrots, and the earthy, dusty flavors of both harmonize their way into one of the most classic food and wine match-ups ever.
The "Chemical' Method: Admittedly, this one takes the most amount of effort to nail, but once you get the hang of it you'll be able to do it in your sleep. The principles at work here revolve around the basics of food and wine chemistry, which just means noticing what happens in your mouth when the sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or astringent flavors in both the food and the wine go head-to-head with one another. Consider the dish you're about to prepare, then ask yourself whether you're in the mood to: A) have the wine complement the food or B) contrast with the food?
Why It Works: For the former scenario, think about all the wedges of lemon you've seen nestled on the plate next to a piece of seafood. Restaurants do this because they know that the acid in the lemon acts as a refresher of sorts to the fish. As for the latter option, the idea here is that sometimes opposing flavors in food and wine can make for interesting, if not delicious, experiences. Scores of people love the notion of a glass of bone-dry cabernet sauvignon (high acid, bitter) with a piece of chocolate (sweet) for this very reason.
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Winning Pescetarian Wine Pairing A: Grilled halibut with basil pesto + Joel Gott California Sauvignon Blanc ($10). Just replace the aforementioned lemon wedge with a glass of zesty, citrus-y sauvignon blanc and suddenly you'll realize why it's the ideal mate for that halibut you're about to grill.
Winning Pescetarian Wine Pairing B: Grilled halibut with basil pesto + Fattoria Bibbiani Chianti Poggio Vignoso 2008 ($12). If you're more into the idea of exploring contrasts, choose a light-bodied red like this sangiovese and see if you agree that a wine with mellow tannins and dried cherry notes can play nicely with the mild, sweet tasting fish and the pesto's licorice-y flavor.
Finally, here are two "get-out-of-jail-free" wines that work with practically any vegetarian dish: Champagne (sparkling wine will do) or Austria's darling daughter, grüner veltliner. The acidity in sparkling wines makes them go perfectly with most veggies, especially if they're fried (literally everything from chickpeas to corn fritters); the lean, refreshing, mineral-driven nature of the lesser-known grüners have made them the ideal wine to pair with notoriously difficult foods like artichokes and asparagus. Try the Weingut Huber Hugo Grüner Veltliner 2008 ($12) for a stellar introduction to this underappreciated varietal.
The most important rule to remember about food and wine pairing is that ultimately, you should drink whatever wine makes you happy.