I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that chef Daniel Humm’s recent announcement that Eleven Madison Park was going meatless sent shock waves through the culinary world. Jaws dropped and eyebrows were raised high. The restaurant, which has three Michelin stars and was named number one in the world on the prestigious San Pellegrino list in 2017, was renowned for its honey lavender duck and its butter poached lobster, not to mention its extensive, Euro-centric wine list. Eyebrows were similarly raised when organizers of the Met Gala announced that the menu for this year’s event will be vegan.
Surprising as the change in direction is, it serves as a kind of ratification of a powerful trend toward plant-based dining—a trend that poses new challenges and opportunities for wine lovers. Show me a steak or a roast chicken and I will show you hundreds of appropriate wine pairings, depending on your taste. There are centuries of tradition to guide these choices, and classic pairings galore in the animal-based world of haute cuisine—oysters and chablis, lamb and red Bordeaux, Champagne and caviar. A salad, on the other hand, or a roast carrot, presents a dilemma.
“One of the hardships—which is also an opportunity—is that there aren’t preconceived notions,” says Cedric Nicaise, longtime wine director and current director of operations at Eleven Madison Park. “It’s liberating.” His current wine director, Watson Brown, agrees. “Previously we had some preconceived anchor points on the menu that no longer exist: lobster, foie gras—at first it felt limiting, but now it’s quite freeing to be able to rewrite the rules a bit. We can’t simply say, ‘Here is your foie gras course, and I’m pouring you Sauternes now because that’s the way it’s always been.’ Many of these dishes have ingredients that are totally foreign at this level of dining. Our sommelier team can now stretch its wings to the furthest reaches of the list. And if we recommend a classic, we have to make sure there’s a why behind it.”
There are some items in the vegetarian pantry that are notoriously difficult to pair with wine, artichokes being the worst offender. Artichokes have the rare ability to make any wine taste metallic and nasty. (“Impossible,” says GM and beverage director Natalie Johnson, of Anton’s in Greenwich Village. “Just drink beer.”) Not quite as bad but also a wine killer is green asparagus. White asparagus is much more wine friendly, which may be a function of the lack of chlorophyl.
The Alsatians, who famously adore it, eat it with the local whites, particularly muscat and pinot gris. Grilling artichokes and green asparagus seems to help a little, and there are some daring sommeliers who will undertake the challenge of pairing them. Victoria O’Bryan, wine director at Michelin-starred Addison in San Diego, cites grüner veltliner as her go-to for these problem veggies, and I’m inclined to agree that grüner, Austria’s most widely produced white wine, is the answer to many vegetable pairings. O’Bryan also likes sauvignon blanc, with its “green pepper tones,” as a partner for lighter vegetables.
Citrus is a wine killer, as is vinegar, which is why salads can be so tricky to match with wine. My advice is to refrain from wine during the salad course. Aldo Sohm, wine director at Le Bernardin, cites “anything pickled,” as his particular wine pairing bête noire. “One problem,” he says, “is how variable vegetables can be. Think of a tomato versus a tomato in peak season. And every truffle tastes a little different.” Sohm, an Austrian native who makes a grüner veltliner in collaboration with renowned winemaker Gerhard Kracher, also favors that wine for some of the pairings on Le Bernardin’s vegetarian tasting menu. He pairs the 2019 Sohm & Kracher Alte Reben Grüner with the poached white asparagus with herb vinaigrette on the tasting menu.
Mushrooms, by contrast, lend themselves to a huge variety of wine pairings, depending on the preparation. “White button mushrooms have such depth and delicacy,” Johnson says. “They’re great shaved thin, napped in beurre blanc, and paired with white Burgundy. Something earthier, like a cremini or a shiitake, roasted with old Barolo or Barbaresco… Yum.” In fact, mushrooms present a bridge from the white wines traditionally associated with plant-based dishes to red. As do truffles, both white and black. And here is a foolproof pairing: A grilled portobello mushroom will inevitably pair nicely with your favorite red.
“It seems that there is this misapprehension in the wine world,” Brown says, “that red wine specifically can be served only with red meat. These wines work well with meat because of the preparation, whether it’s roasted, grilled, smoked, etc., not inherently because it’s meat. So we actually have a lot of red wine–friendly dishes on this menu. One such course features beets roasted in clay, which I’m really fond of pairing with syrah from the Northern Rhône right now.”
I don’t know about you, but I find this incredibly reassuring, and it makes me much more inclined to visit Eleven Madison Park and, by extension, vegan restaurants in general. I’m one of those people who associates vegetable dishes with white wine, and, much as I like white wine, I consider it foreplay. Eventually I want to move on to red. (There are those more fanatic than myself who say that the first duty of any wine is to be red.) Most of the sommeliers I spoke to for this article agreed that the cooking method is all important when it comes to pairing vegetables and wine, and that grilling, roasting, or smoking makes most vegetables more compatible with red wines. “It’s always about the way you prepare,” says Le Bernardin’s Sohm. And most agree that tannic and oaky wines—we’re looking at you, Napa cabernet—are not necessarily ideal with plant-based cuisine.
“I tend to err on the more buoyant side,” says Addison’s O’Bryan, “and keep to wines like pinot noir, Beaujolais, Loire Valley cabernet franc (green pepper galore), and Crianza Rioja.” She also thinks rosé offers myriad pairing opportunities.
It seems likely that we are at the dawn of a new era in food and wine pairing, one in which the increasing emphasis on plant-based dining inspires chefs, diners, and sommeliers to explore bold new combinations. (I haven’t even mentioned Champagne and orange wine—both of which deserve attention in this regard.) The new rules have yet to be written—and if and when they are, they will likely be less doctrinaire than the old rules of haute cuisine and French wine, more suggestive than prescriptive. But when in doubt, grüner veltliner offers a good default position. And Champagne is never a bad idea.
This story appears in the September 2021 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io