As the weather starts to get nicer and Spring begins to assert itself, the home chef starts to think about asparagus. Despite being available year round these days, it is at this time of year when you can find this magnificent vegetable as it was meant to be eaten. Those green spears and Spring are intertwined in our thoughts like Antony and Cleopatra, Astaire and Rogers, or Sid and Nancy.
Actually, those last two might better describe how asparagus and wine go together. An amino acid called methionine is largely responsible for the clash, along with another substance called mercaptan and compounds known as thiols (that are also responsible for the wonder known as “asparagus pee”). Their sulfurous qualities combine with the natural grassy, vegetal qualities to create a flavor profile that is like kryptonite to most wines. Many wine-conscious restaurants flat-out ban the vegetable from their kitchens, which is probably a good idea, as it is not possible to ensure that the customer not order a fine bottle that will be decimated by all that chemistry.
However, it is possible to serve and pair it, especially at home. First, let us look at what to avoid. The worst clashes occur when a wine has a lot of tannins or is heavily oaked. So, we can effectively eliminate almost all reds and most Chardonnays. Big California Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays are possibly the worst wines to have with asparagus. The aforementioned dead punks got along better, even if they had a three day poke jones on. Avoid these at all costs, and with what they tend to cost, that could be very frugal advice.
If you, for whatever reason, simply must serve a red with asparagus, try and find a very fruit-forward Pinot Noir with mild tannins and very little oakiness. Some folks also recommend Beaujolais, but I’m not sold on that idea. In fact, I’m not sold on Beaujolais with anything, but I digress. Whites are a much better match for asparagus.
There are three whites that I find to be the most pleasant with asparagus, Reisling, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc. Of these Sauvignon Blanc is the most obvious and best choice as a direct pairing. The grassiness and citrusy acidity of the wine not only can withstand the powerful onslaught of unique tastes that asparagus brings to the palate, it is actually complimented by it. To me, Sauvignon Blanc is the only wine to reach for if the green spears of death are to be prepared simply, such as steamed or lightly sautéed.
To pair with the other wines mentioned there are a variety of strategies that can be employed. One is to grill or broil the vegetable. Getting a bit of char on the outside seems to let it play a lot more nicely with wine. If served with Pinot Noir I would recommend always using the grill or the broiler.
Another strategy is to use sauces to help marry the flavor. Hollandaise, lemon butter and various mayonaises can help bridge the flavor profiles. Both creamy and citrus seem to do the trick.
So, don’t believe the old canard that wine and asparagus don’t go well together, just take care when pairing them. I will post some recipes later.