‘How do I pair wines with vegan food?’

Watson Brown, wine director at Michelin-starred New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park, explains how best to pair wines with vegan food

Words by Club Oenologique Editors

Cucumber with melon and smoked daikon – vegan
Eleven Madison Park in New York is the only three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the world that serves a purely plant-based menu. Photo: Evan Sung

In our Ask the Sommelier series, we put your wine-related questions to the world’s top sommeliers. In this instalment, Watson Brown, wine director at three-Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park, explains how to match wine with vegan food.

I’ve just turned vegan, and while I’m enjoying discovering new dishes and flavours, selecting wines to go with a meal has become a bit more challenging. Where should I start?
Ruth from Brighton, UK

Watson Brown - vegan food
Watson Brown says it's important to consider all elements of a dish, including sauces and accompaniments, when pairing wine with vegan food. Photo: Jacob Murphy

Wine director Watson Brown responds:

‘The misnomer that we’re trying to disprove is that you can only pair plant-based dishes with white wines, or that there’s no room for red wines or the wines you may have previously enjoyed with meat. We actually have more red-wine-oriented courses than we had before [Eleven Madison Park switched to a 100% plant-based menu in June], so it has much more to do with the preparation of the dish.

If you had a wine pairing at our restaurant, you would see a sparkling wine to start, a few whites, a few reds, then a sweet wine. Things are more bright and light and more acid-driven at the beginning, so you have lighter, leaner styles of white wines.

‘Then you go into more rich, textural things that go great with white Burgundy or white Rhône, then more savoury, smoky, grilled or charred courses which previously would be steak or duck, and are being substituted with root vegetables that go great with red wines – things like Bordeaux, Syrah from the northern Rhône or Grenache from the southern Rhône. So, there’s still plenty of opportunity for all of them.

Fried peppers with Swiss chard – vegan
Fried peppers with Swiss chard from the Eleven Madison Park vegan-friendly menu. Photo: Evan Sung

‘If you think about pairing a meat dish – meat doesn’t really taste like anything by itself – it’s about how you season it, what sauces are on it and the vegetables and accoutrements that come alongside of it, and you’re really pairing those things anyway. So we think about the aromas and flavours that are in those sauces and vegetables that go alongside it, and those are really the ways that we describe wine.

‘For example, we have a blueberry gastrique [a thickened tangy sauce made with sugar and vinegar], and you might talk about a wine having blueberry notes, so you can match those things together. We don’t so often use meat terms to describe wine, but there are much more fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, so I usually think about those terminologies.

Beetroot and Syrah may be the next classic pairing

‘We roast a beetroot dish in clay so it has this burnt-earth, terracotta flavour – and beetroots themselves are kind of bloody and sanguine – so pairing it with Syrah from the northern Rhône has been revolutionary for us because you have all those similar notes. There’s smokiness, that sanguine quality to the Syrah, and we’re using lavender and sage and other herbs to scent the dish, and you get all those aromatics in the wine, too. So, beetroot and Syrah may be the next classic pairing!

‘And in the fall and winter, mushrooms are a staple – an older red Burgundy can be really great with them, older Bordeaux, savoury and aged styles of red wine. But the classic pairing for me is Barolo – you have that truffle/mushroom note, even in younger styles.

Eleven Madison Park – vegan wine pairing
Eleven Madison Park closed in March 2020 and reopened in June this year, serving a purely plant-based menu. Photo: Eleven Madison Park

When we created our wine-pairing menu, what was interesting was not having to use those very classic wines – for example, in the past we had foie gras which meant we always had Sauternes, always caviar and Champagne, always lobster and white Burgundy, so in a way it became “this is what you have to do because this is the way it’s always been done”.

We’re still pairing some of those wines but we’re using them in different combinations. Where we might previously have used Champagne with a dish that has the presentation of caviar, we’re pairing it with an Etna Bianco from Sicily, so we’re able to stretch those rules. It kind of felt a little shackling at the beginning to only be able to use plants, but at the end of the day it’s much more freeing; you can rewrite those rules a little.

‘At the restaurant, we have some wines which would be considered vegan, some not. We have 5,000 wines, and some of them date back to 1900, so we really can’t change the past. Fining is the process that uses a small amount of egg white – some producers do it, some don’t – just like we have some producers that might call themselves natural, some don’t, but what we are always looking for are people who care about their land, their grapes and their wines.’

Interview by Stuart Peskett

Do you have a question to put to the world’s top sommeliers? Send them to editor@cluboenologique.com