When tasting certain wines, critics are often inspired to make food-pairing declarations. “This is a perfect oyster wine,” one might say about a crisp Sancerre, or “This Cabernet is crying out for a grilled steak!”
That almost never happens with asparagus. Asparagus is delicious, but it’s also laden with a sulfur-containing amino acid that can conspire with the vegetable’s grassy flavor to make wine taste vegetal, metallic and downright awful. It’s known in the wine world as one of the untouchables — a pairing best not attempted. Despite the taboo, I’ve seen asparagus on enough wine country tables to know that although the pairing may be difficult, it’s certainly not impossible. It can even be enjoyable!
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Chad Hendrickson, executive chef for The Hess Collection Winery in Napa, Calif., agrees. “It’s all about the preparation and other ingredients that are used,” he said. “I’m looking for flavor components in the wine that I can use to help bring the wine and the dish together.” Plain, blanched asparagus tends to clash with wine, he noted, but grilled asparagus is another story. “Grilling adds that nice bit of char, and it also adds a cleaner asparagus flavor,” he said. The next step is to include elements in the dish that will act as a bridge to the flavor of the asparagus. “I do a salad that consists of citrus over shaved fennel, grilled asparagus and a little goat cheese,” he said. “We also make a wildflower honey vinaigrette for asparagus that works really well with the flavor of our Chardonnay.”
Hendrickson recommends white wines with asparagus, and avoids serving it with buttery, oaky styles of Chardonnay. “I’m a fan of wines with more of a mineral background,” he said, noting that Pinot Grigio is one of his favorite asparagus-friendly varieties. He also likes to pair certain asparagus dishes with richer wines, such as Viognier.
An overabundance of fruit character can also cause pairing problems, according to Lia Huber, who creates recipes for Bonterra Organic Vineyards in California’s Mendocino County. “The key is to stay away from anything too fruit-forward, because overt fruitiness in wine clashes horribly with that funky-musty undertone that asparagus has,” she said. “Instead, choose wines with mineral, citrus or grassy characteristics and high acidity, like Sauvignon Blanc. These wines come right alongside asparagus and hold hands.”
The best pairings
To find out which wines really work best with those funky green stalks, I recruited a few friendly wine professionals to join me in the Mother of All Wine-and-Asparagus Tastings: 28 white wines versus five pounds of grilled asparagus. Between bites of asparagus, we tasted the wines blind (with the labels covered to hide the brand names) and awarded each pairing a medal rating of bronze, silver or gold. Wines that clashed with the asparagus received a “no medal” rating. Once initial medals were decided, we pitted the gold medal wines against each other in a taste-off round to crown the Asparagus Champion.
Having judged quite a few professional wine competitions in our collective careers, we had to alter our mindsets a bit for this one. Rather than simply selecting the best wines in each round — and there were some very good ones in the running — asparagus compatibility was the most important factor in rating the contenders.
Of the 28 wines we tasted, five earned gold medals and 10 scored silver. I expected the Sauvignon Blanc wines to shine, and they did, but there were some surprises too. I thought the Chardonnays would surely bomb, and had doubts about the rosés, but one of each made it into our top five. Starting with the Asparagus Champion, the winning wines are:
Steelhead Vineyards 2012 North Coast Sauvignon Blanc ($12.99): With fresh lime and citrus aromas, this wine is crisp and clean, with plenty of citrus and grassiness on the palate.
Quivira 2012 Fig Tree Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($22): This wine has tropical aromas of guava, along with grassy notes and a pleasant muskiness. It’s lean and fresh on the palate with lemon and grapefruit flavors, and bracing acidity.
Malk 2012 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($29): A peachy, floral aroma is followed on the palate with surprising freshness and complexity. The wine shows a hint of peach flavor, along with tart citrus and mineral notes.
Casey Flat Ranch 2013 Capay Valley Rosé ($18): Pale pink in color, this dry rosé has subtle aromas of strawberries and orange zest. It’s fresh and crisp, with lively acidity and a balanced fruitiness.
Domaine Carneros 2012 La Terre Promise Carneros Chardonnay ($44): With aromas of green apples and soft vanilla, this wine is nicely rounded, with a fine balance between fruit and subtle oak. This wine would pair best with asparagus dishes that involve some richer elements.
Now that you know which wines to serve with that gorgeous green bounty, all you need is a great recipe to celebrate the stalks of spring. This dish was created by Huber to “hold hands” with Bonterra’s Sauvignon Blanc, but it works just as well with similarly grassy, citrusy wines.
Flash-Roasted Asparagus With Springtime Gribiche
2 pounds asparagus, trimmed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon capers, chopped
4 gherkin pickles, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh herbs (flat leaf parsley, tarragon, chervil), finely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 475 F.
2. Toss asparagus with 1 tablespoon olive oil and a generous pinch of salt and pepper, and spread on a baking sheet. Roast for 5 to 8 minutes, turning occasionally, until just tender to the bite.
3. Meanwhile, separate 1 egg yolk from the white; place yolk in a medium bowl and the white on a cutting board. Finely chop white and remaining egg and set aside.
4. Use a fork to break up the egg yolk in the bowl and whisk in 2 tablespoons olive oil, vinegar and Dijon until it’s smooth. Mix in chopped eggs, capers, pickles and herbs, and season with salt and pepper.
5. Arrange asparagus on a serving dish and top with the gribiche sauce.
Main photo: Asparagus is considered a notoriously difficult food to pair with wine. Credit: Tina Caputo