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Oct 16, 2010 07:12 AM

Pairing wines with vegetarian dishes: test results

See below for a link to "A pairing test for vegetarians", an interesting article from Bill Zacharkiw in today's (Montreal) Gazette. Some surprising winners, including borscht with right-bank (i.e. red) Bordeaux, fettuccine al pesto with a Corsican Niellucciu (Sangiovese) and Syrah blend, and a passing reference to mackerel with Barolo.

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  1. Open letter to Bill Zacharkiw:

    Dear Bill,

    I appreciate your article.
    In fact, based on the picture, you look like a nice guy.

    However, your pairing of barolo and mackerel lighted a red flag.
    But just to show you my good intentions I didn't close my browser right there, I bit the bullet and continued reading.

    Then you wrote :
    "Because there is no animal fat – including butter – in the meals, and considering that many of the flavours in vegetarian cuisine are derived from spices, we both figured that the more aromatic whites would be the natural choices: riesling, gewurztraminer and so forth." What you're basically saying is: aromatic & spicy go with aromatic & spicy.

    Let's take that "sous bénéfice d'inventaire" for now.

    A few lines further down you say "If we could draw one conclusion, it was that the more complicated the recipe in terms of spices and flavours, the simpler should be the wine."
    Doesn't that contradict the previous conclusion?

    Next smoking gun:
    "This [meaning: previously cited conclusion] was most true with the red wines, where our two most inexpensive wines blew away others that were three to four times their price. And this kind of makes sense. More expensive wines, with their oak, big flavours and heavier tannins, are made for more neutral tasting foods like red meat, which are more about texture than actual spice."
    Now it's getting real bad. Really. Red meat = neutral tasting? More expensive means lots of oak and heavy tannins?? And it gets even better with your next statement:

    "Imagine wearing a Hawaiian shirt and trying to match it with pants that are equally as flashy. Simple food goes best with busier wines, and complicated foods with simpler wines."
    Didn't you like pairing mackerel and barolo? Which is the simple one here??

    My dear Bill, I don't want to go into the specific pairings you mention in your article. And that, basically, because I was reading your article aloud, and when I got to the point where you mention ( and I quote ):
    “Borscht (beets, tomato, dill)”, people in my audience stopped my right there.
    “Borscht and tomato? Are you nuts??”
    I tried my best to save you. I said (softly and condescendingly) “Well, what about the dill?”
    Response came back like a sledgehammer: “Nonsense, but we can live with. But borscht with tomato? That’s ganz verdreht. Foughetit.”
    At that point, my entire defense strategy just fell appart, I had to concede a humiliating defeat.
    Stil I believe you’re a nice guy, Bill, and I wish you the best.


    5 Replies
    1. re: RicRios

      Ha. Quelle exégèse !

      Have never met Mr. Z tho' we share some friends/acquaintences. And, not having been party to the tasting, I'm not about to defend his pairings (beyond saying that he -- a former sommelier at one of Quebec's better restos as well as a former resto owner himself -- is the Canadian wine writer whose palate seems most aligned with mine and, I suspect, yours), though I will forward your missive to his Gazette inbox.

      But, but, but...

      «Red meat = neutral tasting?»
      Yes. What's the best pairing for, say, a fine old claret "(very old, light and delicate: e.g. pre-60)"? "Leg or rack of young lamb, roast with a hint of herbs (but not garlic); entrecôte; roast partidge or grouse..." That's Hugh Johnson in his 2008 Pocket Wine Book, who suggests slightly more robustly flavoured roasts "with a touch of garlic" for fully mature great vintages (61, 66, 75) and "shoulder or saddle of lamb (inc kidneys) with rich sauce. Fillet of beef with marchand de vin (with wine and bone-marrow)" for mature but still vigorous red Bordeaux (e.g. 85, 86, 89). In other words, assuming you're not talking about, oh, bear or seal, basic cuts of red meat sans extraneous flavours are a good neutral background, especially for structured wines (roast chicken's probably a better bet for your 1929 Vosne-Romanée).

      «More expensive means lots of oak and heavy tannins??»
      You have a point. But so does he: less expensive rarely means lots of oak (unless you're talking chips, which I'm sure he isn't) or heavy tannins (unless you're talking ghastly inexpensive wines, which I'm sure he isn't).

      «Didn't you like pairing mackerel and barolo? Which is the simple one here??»
      Assuming the fish's preparation is straightforward, the mackerel obviously.
      (Gotta admit that I find even the thought of this match-up pretty off-putting, though I'd love to be convinced otherwise.)

      «“Borscht and tomato? Are you nuts??”»
      Hate to break it to you, bubeleh, but lots and lots of borscht recipes call for tomato. Pull out some cookbooks. Google some recipes, especially vegetarian recipes. Even look at Wikipedia FWIW: "In some countries tomato may occur as the main ingredient, while beetroot acts as a secondary ingredient." "In Doukhobor cuisine, the main ingredient is cabbage, and the soup also contains beets, potatoes, tomatoes and heavy cream along with dill and leeks. This style of borscht is orange in colour, and is always eaten hot." "Pink color of traditional Lithuanian cold borscht (šaltibarščiai). Often eaten with a hot boiled potato, sour cream and dill." -

      You may not approve but he's hardly off base.

      1. re: carswell

        Mon vieux,

        Wikipedia, schmikipedia.
        Again, I'm very tolerant. My audience wasn't. They didn't let me continue, period.
        Although I must confess, the idea of borscht and tomato didn't sound right. And it doesn't.
        Litvaks are Litvaks. My father used to say they twist everything upside down.
        And then Doukhoborskis, what do I know!
        I can negotiate anything else.
        Well, almost.
        The old fine claret should go down by itself. Any distraction is sagrilège, period. Mackerel? That's gefilte fish. Together with carp, white fish. Straightforward preparation?? Not on my dead body. But I'm digressing. With barolo?? No way. Never.

        Asez. Too much discussion, it's 9 PM on a Saturday night in San Pancho ( as the locals call SFco ), all I've had so far is a half glass of Fernet Branca. Time to have some proper restauration.
        À la tienne!

        1. re: RicRios

          <Mackerel? That's gefilte fish. Together with carp, white fish.>

          Not to my family, it's not. Gefilte fish is whitefish and pike, period. But I agree that mackerel and Barolo SOUNDS lika a terrible combination. Not sure how one would have to cook said mackerel to make it compatible with the Barolo, and not sure I want to know...

          1. re: ChefJune

            never understood peoples retiscence, especially foodies, to try new things. this tasting was done two years ago but i remember that the fish was marinated with rice vinegar and then seared.. I will call the chef and see if he remembers what he did..with the 2003 Barolo from Paolo Conterno, the match was fantastic, and truly extraordinary with a 2004 Barolo from Cascina Bongiovani.

      2. re: RicRios

        Amazing the things one finds when one googles oneself. Hey Ric. Next time you write an open letter, please send it to me. But here is a belated response. And thanks for the defence Carswell. Your tastings sound interesting...Let me know if you would like to participate in one of these taste tests in the future. And you as well Ric.

        First the borscht question. I am 3/4 Ukranian and 1/4 Polish. My grandmothers, mother, aunts all use tomato and dill in their borscht. It's the way it is made around here, and I am not sure what your ethnicity is, but east European grannies know a thing or two about their borscht. I have tried North Americanized versions, all good, but this is the only way I know Borscht and continue the family traditions.

        With respect to the Bordeaux pairing with that recipe, believe me we were all dumbfounded as it was really stellar. And here we segué into why I do these tastings.

        I have worked as a sommelier for most of my life with wine and food pairing being my chief interest. I do these taste tests to expand the frontiers- to test not only what are considered classic pairings but also to see what else might work.

        The Borolo and mackarel pairing came out of a test where we were blind tasting pinot noir versus nebbiolo, and also testing how well these reds, known for their ability to work with a number of different food types, do with sushi. We were four at the table, which incuded Burg freak Cssady, owner of kaizen, North America's top sommmelier Elyse Lambert as well as Nico Snyman. Not shabby company. We were all blown away at how good it was.

        At the vegetarian tasting, yes there was a contradiction. While many of us at the table expected aromatic and spicy wines to rule the evening, in the end they did not. So it is a case of expectations versus results.That is why I do these things.

        Now in terms of my statement that the "busier" wines worked less well with more complicated foods, this is obviously a generalization. My point was that if you compare the entry level tempranillo that proved to be the groups choice as the best all around wine with one of the more expensive reds, the Bonal was a very simple fruit driven wine. It had none of the oak derived spices or other flavours that are found in wines that have spent time in oak. There were no tertiary or other flavours. Just a simple wine that seemed to work well with everything that was served. In our tasting, the more the wine was complex in term of aromatics, the more it was a hit or miss situation. But you can draw your own conclusions.

        So I don't know where you are from, but if in Montreal drop me a line and I would be glad to invite you to one of these taste tests. The results might surprise you.

        And no, I may look nice but deep down I am a real a**hole.


      3. This was a really great article and I appreciate the fresh approach. Classic pairings are fine but new learnings really excite when you step off the beaten path.

        I had a great, imaginative pairing at The Napa Rose a few months ago. It was a wild mushroom dish with a veal sauce. They paired it with a big Washington wine- strong blackberry notes- it was like walking through a damp forest! Seriously, it was like being transported.

        Fabulous. Inventive. Intentional. Unusual. Surprising. Fun. I enjoy articles that encourage us to play with our food.