Vegetarian Food & Wine Pairing: Tips From the Nobilo Winery

Some wines just seem to be destined to be paired with specific foods: Cabernet and steak. Pinot Grigio and seafood. Beer and burgers (okay, that’s not wine, but you get the picture). Such is the case with Nobilo, a winery hailing from the tropical, fruit-speckled lands of New Zealand. Nobilo creates wines that seem to be made for vegetarian cuisine. So it’s only natural that they should host a dinner event focused exclusively on pairing wines with vegetarian entrees. I had the pleasure of attending their Meatless Mondays wine pairing dinner this week, and here are the lessons I learned for vegetarian wine pairing.

On the Wine.

While its neighbor, Australia, is known for producing massive qualities of Shiraz and other wines of varying quality, New Zealand has taken a more selective route, opting instead to focus on just a few wines made of impeccable quality. Two of these wines are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, both mastered by winemakers at Nobilo. During their Meatless Mondays dinner event, Nobilo shared first-hand their tips for pairing such vegetarian-friendly wines with a meatless meal from start to finish.

Perhaps the most simple and necessary thing to understand when pairing wines with foods is that they should have similar “weight”—that is, an extremely heavy cream sauce can hold up to a rich, bold wine, while a light, crispy wine will pair best with a lighter, leaner dish. Weight, fattiness and depth should be comparable in this regard. On the other hand, your wine and food should complement each other with levels of acidity and roundness. A sharp white wine may be rounded out with a light buttery dish. Or a full, ripe red wine may be accentuated by a slightly citrusy dish.

Another tip for pairing vegetarian foods with wines is to consider foods, wines and other ingredients coming from the same region—they will naturally complement each other. For example, Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc pairs perfectly with seafood, citrus and tropical fruits, all hailing from New Zealand. In Italy, a fine Chianti will pair well with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.

On to the meal.

For starters, we were served an appetizer of crisp squash flowers stuffed with herb-infused thick yogurt. The flowers were lightly fried and served with a fresh lemon-yogurt sauce. The appetizer, which had a wonderful tart, sharp flavor from the lemon and yogurt, yet also a full roundness from the thick yogurt filling, was a perfect match against our tropical and crisp 2010 Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc. As is usually the case with wines, a light and crispy wine will pair well against gently fried dishes, as the crispness “cuts the fat” of the fried dish. The lesson of this course: Pair crisp, fruity white wines with light vegetables, beans and cheeses, accentuated by methods of frying and the addition of lightly creamed sauces.

Second course featured Nobilo’s 2010 Icon Sauvignon Blanc, a white made from the same grapes as our initial wine, but the Icon version blends the grapes a bit differently to create a more refined, smooth result. Rather than a punch of bursting tropical notes, as was the first wine, this one was more reserved, more understated. To complement those notes, we were served a creamy risotto with white asparagus, peppered pecorino and Arbequina olive oil. The soft, round and buttery flavors of the risotto melted into the same notes of the Sauvignon Blanc, and the fruitiness of the olive oil brought out the very subtle tropical notes of the wine. The lesson of this course: Pair rounder, more sophisticated white wines with softer foods like buttery pastas, pilafs and vegetable sautés, accentuated with subtle fruity finishes like olive oil, herbs and peppery cheeses.

The entrée really blew me away. A single artichoke had been braised in a light wine-based broth and served alongside a fried chickpea cake, topped with freshly cooked fava beans and dark bread crumbs—and finally, a soft poached egg. We switched from our white Sauvignon Blanc to the 2009 Nobilo Icon Pinot Noir, a red wine that has hints of red cherry, musty wood and gentle mushrooms. It’s a lighter red in weight but has lovely fruit and earth qualities.

Red wines can be the most difficult to pair with vegetarian foods, as their weightiness and richness typically require a red meat (or other protein) to balance on the palate. But this entrée really proved that idea wrong. The fall-apart soft artichoke melted with the touch of a fork, not unlike that of a well prepared steak, and its slight grassy flavors, along with the fava beans, matched the earthy and musty flavors of the Pinot Noir. The fried chickpea cake gave the dish that fatty weight that can be hard to achieve with vegetarian entrees, and that which is needed to balance many reds. The poached egg, light, creamy and sumptuous, mimicked the same mouth feel you would get from animal fat or meat marbling. Topped off with the salty, dark bread crumbs, the entire entrée came together to bring all the elements of a “meaty” entrée into one cohesive, meatless dish—and all in the form of real, simple foods that were unprocessed and uncomplicated. The lesson of this course: Find ways to pair reds by choosing plant foods that can match the earthy, musty, robust qualities—fresh beans, mushrooms, fermented breads, eggs and braised vegetables are all great starts.

Let’s not forget dessert. Sticking with Nobilo’s Icon Pinot Noir, we were served a plate of strawberry sorbet, muddled strawberries in cinnamon syrup and vanilla milk custard. The aromatic spices in the syrup sauce, along with the round vanilla in the custard, matched the earthy, musty flavors of the Pinot Noir, and the crispy berry sorbet accentuated the light fruity flavors of the wine. Lessons from this course: Use warm baking spices, fruits and light creams to bring out the fruitiness of a red while also rounding it out with just a hint of cream or vanilla sauce.

Pairing vegetarian foods with wines may be a new adventure for me, and I certainly have a long way to go. Fortunately, I have countless Meatless Mondays ahead to figure it all out.

For more information, visit the Nobilo Wines website.

Image: Kimberley Stakal