For such a polarizing vegetable, eggplant is hard to avoid. It’s used around the world and adapts to virtually any cooking method. Coming in several colors, shapes and sizes, it’s also a bit of a chameleon, absorbing any flavors with which it’s cooked. But it has many distinct qualities, too, which can make wine pairings both challenging and rewarding. Here are some tips to play up your favorite eggplant characteristics.
Though modern eggplant cultivars are bred to be less bitter than those of yore, the vegetable has an astringent quality similar to the tannins in grape skins. Wine tannins feel less harsh when enjoyed with an eggplant-primed palate. A not-too-tannic Cabernet Sauvignon can have eggplant-friendly flavors like bell and chile peppers, mint and baking spices.
When cooked, eggplant’s flesh softens to a mouthcoating creaminess. A similarly textured wine could make both fall flat. Instead, look for something with brisk acidity and briny minerality. Assyrtiko pops beautifully against eggplant’s buttery sweetness, the same way olives and capers do in eggplant caponata.
Like squash, potatoes or beets, eggplant can taste like the ground from which it’s grown. A fresh and juicy wine can offset such intense savoriness. Hailing from Sicily, Frappato and Nerello Mascalese both offer bright red fruit, with eggplant-friendly hints of cinnamon and dried herbs.
Smokiness is less an intrinsic quality of eggplant than the result of many common cooking methods. It sucks up charred flavors from high-heat roasting, grilling and stir-frying. Syrah from the northern Rhône or Washington State has smoky undertones that accentuate these flavors.