As an avid foodie, and pretty good home chef, one of the things I’m loath to admit is that I am frequently ambivalent towards vegetables. There are a few vegetables I hate, there are also few that I love, and then just a whole bunch somewhere in the middle. Not sure if I was attacked by killer tomatoes (movie reference there for those over 35) as a kid, or what, but I rarely get excited about cooking the vegetables. That said, there a few I do really like, and when the season hits I tend to overload on them. During spring, one of my favorites is Asparagus…which is absolutely delicious and is great to pair with food. But asparagus, also brings some serious wine pairing challenges.
While, I’m no scientist, chemist, biologist, or any other "ist”, I’ve done a bit of research on why Asparagus is so difficult to pair with wine. There a few slightly different spins out there, but everything I saw essentially boiled down to the fact that there are natural compounds in asparagus that really, really, clash with other compounds found in many wines. When they combine on the pallet, the result can be bitter, sulfuric, "icky" tasting wine. Now, notice that I said, many wines…not all wines. There are certain options available to you, and you can help cook the asparagus in ways that will help make a better match. So while you don’t have the range of wine options you have with other vegetables, there are still some great options out there.
Picking the Right Wine for Asparagus
The compounds present in asparagus that I mentioned above, really clash with heavy tannins and heavy oak. Asparagus tends to make wines that are heavy in both (or either) taste really rotten. So that eliminates just about all of the red category. The great big cabs of California and even the more subtle pinots from Oregon are likely to taste pretty bad when matched with asparagus. If you absolutely must choose a red, pick something that can be drunk very young (because there is so little tannin) and that is very fruit forward.
So Dave, you’re telling me to break out the white? Yes, I am, but selectively. Much of the chardonnay on the market (especially those from New World producers) has a tremendous amount of oak, and I would avoid those as well. My preference would be to reach for a Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc is generally light and floral, with some grassi-ness to it; that not only doesn’t clash with asparagus, but it can actually compliment it. It's also light in oak and tannin, and the relatively high acid helps to balance the asparagus.
Cooking the Asparagus
In addition to picking the right wine, you can also help minimize any flavor clashes by how you cook the asparagus. The simple rule of thumb is, the more simply prepared the asparagus, the harder it will be to pair. So you can try these cooking techniques:
- Grilling the asparagus and getting some char from the heat will help give it a smokier and heartier flavor that will make it easier to pair with chardonnay, and certainly with lighter whites like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Gri
- Serve the asparagus with a cream sauce like hollandaise. The sauce with give the asparagus more body and richness which will also make it easier to pair with chardonnay
- Finally, and perhaps my favorite, sauteing the asparagus with a bit of bacon or pancetta with also give the asparagus extra body (from the bacon drippings) and the salty, meaty goodness of pork. You can try my recipe for Asparagus, Bacon & Pine Nuts.
I'd suggest that you give Banchee's 2010 Sauvignon Blanc a try. Banchee is a locally (Northern California) based winery, and I had a their Sauvignon Blanc for the first time a few weeks ago. The wine is very crisp and grassy, with very nice floral and citrus notes. It makes a great pairing with Asparagus and at under $20 it won't break the bank.
Dave is the founder/owner of the web site NoRecipeRequired.com, a site which is dedicated to showing the fundamental techniques and strategies that home cooks can use to make great meals.