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Vegetables are increasingly moving from supporting actor to main player on the plate. But which wines go with which vegetarian dishes? Daniela Dejnega spoke with two sommeliers who emphasise one thing above all: There are no more blanket answers.
André Drechsel, restaurant manager and sommelier at the Viennese restaurant Tian ©Ingo Pertramer

Much has changed for the better in vegetable cuisine. The author of this article, a wine lover and vegetarian for over 20 years, can only agree. For decades, the offer for non-meat eaters in simple restaurants was basically meagre and even in upscale restaurants you were - more or less behind closed doors - laughed at, pitied or given eye-rolling treatment. Today, however, more and more people are becoming aware of how many good reasons there are to eat less meat and more vegetables. It has long been normal in restaurants to offer several meat-free dishes or a vegetarian menu. It is only when it comes to choosing the right wine that people are often at a loss. So how do professionals match the wine accompaniment to vegetable cuisine?

"Vegetable cuisine has long been in the shadow of meat cuisine for sommeliers, although its three-dimensionality means it belongs in the foreground," says André Drechsel, restaurant manager and sommelier at Vienna's Restaurant Tian, the only Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant in Austria. "Meat dishes are more limited, whereas vegetable dishes are much broader, more flexible and more varied. One type of vegetable can be used to prepare 100 dishes, all of which taste different," he continues. The more refined and varied the vegetarian cuisine, the more complex the choice of wines. At Tian, more than 80 per cent of the wine-drinking guests order the wine accompaniment to the menu. The sommeliers explain all the wines very precisely.

Whatever tastes good is allowed!

Red wines also go well with porcini mushrooms. ©ÖWM - Blickwerk

"The time of thoughtless meat consumption is over, if only for environmental reasons," confirms the young sommelier Max Weber, who recently gained experience in several top restaurants in the world, including Geranium in Copenhagen.

The restaurant is not only the new number 1 on the "World's 50 Best Restaurants" list, but has also been focusing on vegetable dishes for a long time - and has been cooking without meat since 2022.

Max Weber likes that: "The combination of wine and vegetables is simply exciting because the variety is much greater than with meat and fish. Ingredients, spices and preparation methods offer countless variations. Just how many flavours can be teased out of a tomato is incredible. On top of that, there are so many different tomato varieties. It all makes it extremely interesting."

Sommelier Max Weber loves the aromatic variations of vegetable cuisine. ©Max Weber

While many vegetables are generally more inclined to white wine, tomatoes often work for him with red wine, which can also be a little stronger - especially if the tomato is stewed or grilled. Porcini mushrooms or braised potatoes (in Austria: Erdäpfel) can also harmonise excellently with red wine. Are there any specific recommendations for him? "I often get asked about basic rules," says Max Weber, "but those days are over. What tastes good is allowed - there are no rules of thumb!" For him, however, one aspect is very important in the selection: "Do I want to emphasise harmony or set a counterpoint?" André Drechsel also doesn't think much of blanket answers: "There used to be rules when dishes were more one-dimensional. Today I work with extremely complex dishes. I often look for the counterpoint, a small spike of acidity, for example, a tiny outlier, so that it doesn't become boring. Sometimes the dish is the main actor, then again it's the wine. The food pushes the wine and vice versa."

Weber increasingly gives preference to natural wines: "I started out 'classic French' and I still love it, but for me it's all about drinkability - and wines with 14.5 per cent alcohol don't have any. Organic and biodynamic wines tend to be a bit leaner and have drinkability."

Are organic wines more suitable?

In this sense, André Drechsel likes to work with wines from organic or biodynamic cultivation, and he also often uses Natural Wines in the wine accompaniment. He explains: "Natural wine does not mean cloudy and stinky, it can be very clear and precise. And vegetarian cuisine is particularly suitable for pairing with it, because the structure and texture of vegetable dishes are very important. The structure of natural wines goes very well with this. Mash-fermented white wines, which have grip due to the tannins, also look incredibly good with vegetable cuisine. Conventional, "made" wines are too well-behaved and pleasing for our kind of dishes. We need acidity, grip, tannins, nothing brave and straightforward."

Aromatic varieties, on the other hand, are very rarely represented in his wines. For him, the gooseberry aromas of Sauvignon Blanc interfere with the delicacy of the dishes, Muskateller is also difficult and, like Traminer, is only used in a mash-fermented version. But if the vegetables have a lot of flavour of their own, such as savoy cabbage or kale, the wine can also have more power. Drechsel mentions a powerful, mature Chablis or a full-bodied Pinot Blanc as possible partners.

Off the beaten track

The pumpkin ceviche harmonises perfectly with a residually sweet Riesling. ©Max Weber

Incidentally, both sommeliers consider sparkling wines to be excellent with vegetable cuisine. Max Weber recently combined a beetle bean hummus with champagne from Agrapart - a very successful pairing for him. He names a vegan pumpkin ceviche with residually sweet Riesling as one of his favourite combinations. In his case, it came from the Saar: Egon Müller's 2019 Le Gallais Wiltinger Braune Kupp Kabinett. A fresh Riesling is also an excellent companion to vegetable curry prepared with coconut milk. If there is more spiciness, however, it needs a little residual sweetness with a low alcohol content.

André Drechsel, on the other hand, raves about a porcini mushroom dish that is currently being served at Tian: "It has a lot of umami and power, there are porcini mushrooms, but also blackberries. That's why I deliberately use a red, which is light in alcohol but still has a certain power. I serve it cold, so I deliberately keep the wine lean and the fruit comes to the fore, tannins and body don't come to the fore at all. The wine stands up to the dish, but also freshens it up. That gives it a little kick."

Max Weber emphasises: "People who like to drink wine but are not extremely familiar with it should dare more and communicate with the sommelier in the restaurant, let themselves be surprised and leave the beaten track. It's boring to always drink the same thing!"

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