Explainer

How to Nail the Impossible Pairing: Wine and Vegetables

Sure-fire ways to make the chemistry work

Meg Maker By July 5, 2021July 16th, 2021

Summer has arrived, which means it’s time for open-air picnics, crunchy salads, and tender spring vegetables. Fresh produce may seem wine-hostile, but you don’t have to reach for a beer — or worse, water — to wash it down. 

Vegetables, whether fresh or blanched, come with some challenges when it comes to wine pairing, for an interesting set of reasons. Once you know what they are, pairing with crisp vegetables becomes possible.

Why are vegetables so hard to pair with wine?

It’s partly because vegetables span the flavor spectrum, from sweet to sour, bitter to vegetal, bland to spicy. No one wine can match them all.

Some vegetables also have chemical compounds that affect taste:

  • Artichokes have cynarine and chlorogenic acid, which make the next mouthful taste sweet. Even a lightly sweet wine will seem cloying.
  • Swiss chard, beet greens, and spinach have oxalic acid, which binds to calcium in the mouth, making it feel dry and gritty. Tannic red wines heighten that effect.
  • Hot peppers get their piquancy from capsicum. Wine’s alcohol and acid pour gasoline on that fire.

The common advice is to dress blanched or raw vegetables in a rich sauce or serve them with a protein — fish, meat, nuts, cheese, or legumes — and match the wine accordingly. That’s because it’s easier to pair wines with foods that have some weight and heft.

Best wines for vegetables

It’s harder, but not impossible, to match wines when the vegetables themselves are the main event. Fortunately, there are options in every category: white, red, rosé, and sparkling. 

Look for wines with firm acidity, modest-to-no tannins, and crisp fruit. Barrel-fermented and barrel-aged wines, lactic whites, and wines with significant bottle age are poor choices. Instead, look for wines that are fresh and youthful.

Crisp white wines act like a squeeze of lemon. Seek unoaked styles that did not go through malolactic fermentation. Wines with grassy, citrus, or green apple notes are strong options. Try: 

  • Grüner Veltliner, especially with blanched asparagus.
  • Sauvignon Blanc, including brisk styles from Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, and Bordeaux or more assertive options from New Zealand or California.
  • Dry Riesling, which is especially versatile with garlicky vinaigrettes.
  • Soave, Verdicchio, Vernaccia, Greco di Tufo, Cortese di Gavi, Assyrtiko, Vermentino, in other words, salty, bracing Mediterranean whites.
  • Chenin Blanc in all its guises, from crackly dry Savennières to sweet Vouvray.
  • Chardonnay, including Chablis or any crisp unoaked style.

Rosé wines mingle the freshness of white wine with the fruit notes of red. These wines pair with a huge range of raw and blanched vegetables, from leafy greens to sweet corn and peas. There is no better wine for tomato salad. Try:

  • French rosé, based principally on Grenache, with herby, fruity salads or the aïoli platter.
  • Tavel, (a darker, more structured style of rosé,) with broccoli rabe, radicchio, or endive. Cerasulo d’Abruzzo is another dark-pink option that bridges rosé and red.

Sparkling wines’ firm acidity makes them a versatile choice, but look for Brut styles without much bottle age, as that nuttiness isn’t always a great companion. Try:

  • Blanc or rosé crémant from Alsace, Burgundy, or Loire.
  • Prosecco, either the traditional white, (made from Glera,) or the new rosé, made pink by a shot of Pinot Noir. Col Fondo Prosecco, which rests on its lees, can hold up to heartier vegetables.

Red wines are the trickiest to pair. Structured reds are reasonable with bitter greens, but their tannins seem severe with other options. The most flexible reds lean on acidity and fruit instead. Try:

  • Gamay, especially from the lighter Beaujolais crus like Fleurie and Chiroubles.
  • Pinot Noir, including crunchy styles from the Oregon, Germany, or Alto Adige.
  • Cinsault, a light red with strawberry fruit character.
  • Cabernet Franc from the Finger Lakes or Central Loire; its leafy note is a tie-in.
  • País, also called Mission, which is somewhat tannic but with a juicy-fruit core.

The list is far from comprehensive, so use these ideas as a jumping off point. Then spread the picnic blanket, slice the baguette, and pop a cork with confidence.

5 wines to try with vegetables:

Clos des Fous Subsollum Aconcagua Costa Pinot Noir 2017 ($17)

Don’t let the French name fool you; this is a red blend from Chile, a collaboration of four rock star wine pros. It’s about 90% Pinot Noir with a dose of Cinsault. It’s a juicy mouthful of red cherries with highlights of mint, roses, and earth. It’s perfect for grilled radicchio and broccoli rabe drizzled with peppery olive oil. 

Ravines Finger Lakes Dry Riesling 2017 ($18)

Ravines’s dry Riesling is estate-grown on the banks of Seneca Lake. It yields the scent of wet rocks, orange blossom, and lemon, and the body has firm acidity and flavors of citrus and stone fruits. The finish glows like a lemony candle. Try it with asparagus; bonus points if served with a dressing of lemongrass and ginger.

Salomon Undhof Wieden Kremstal Grüner Veltliner 2019 ($22)

This grassy Grüner delivers a perfume of apple blossom and white peach and flavors of citrus pith, ginger, and brine. That saline quality lends itself to simple preparations of blanched, chilled vegetables drizzled with fruity olive oil and tossed with a flurry of salt.

Birichino Pétillant Naturel Bechthold Vineyard Mokelumne River Lodi Cinsault 2020 ($26)

This pét-nat sparkler is made from dry-farmed Cinsault planted in 1886. It’s a pretty pink color, with a fragrance of tarragon and thyme, with fruit notes that suggest yellow peach and strawberry. It has a savory finish. Try it with a chopped salad of tomato, avocado, and mango.

Ellison Estate Vineyard Marquette Regeneration 5 Pétillant Naturel Vermont 2019 ($35)

This brand-new project on a 50-acre farm in Grand Isle, Vermont, has launched a range of wines and ciders. Their sparkling red pét-nat is 100% Marquette, a hybrid grape that laughs off the region’s brutal winters. The foamy mousse is electric with fuchsia-purple notes of cherries, basil, and cinnamon. Treat it like a Lambrusco and pair it with bagna cauda.