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Friday, October 31, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Overcast
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How to pair wine with spring's fresh asparagus
Green, meet white

Common wisdom says that asparagus is difficult to pair with wine. The same vegetal, chlorophyll-rich flavor that makes the green stalks crave-worthy in spring causes companion wines to taste metallic.

A traditional way to force the pairing is to overcook the asparagus to blandness, wrap the stalks in sweet ham, slather in a hollandaise sauce, and pop the cork on a citrusy Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire or a fruity New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. This works. But at the cost of the fresh, lively snap and grassy flavor that beckoned in the first place.

The other lauded pairing is asparagus and Alsatian Muscat, a honeysuckle-inflected white wine that works nicely as a summer aperitif. But this is really only due to the fact that Alsatian asparagus is not at all like what we're used to in the U.S. They call it spargi. Across Alsace, gardeners cover asparagus shoots with paper bags, depriving the budding plant of chlorophyll. This creates a delicate white freak that is then peeled and cooked, more closely resembling a root vegetable than the verdant stalks we know. The resulting pairing is ethereal but often watery: watery white asparagus with watery Muscat.

However, Muscat can still be a triumphant answer to this pesky spring pairing conundrum. The missing link is concentration — choose a rich Muscat, then create a rich flavor bridge. A soft-boiled egg broken over steamed asparagus with a dash of lemon juice or vinegar is brighter and more modern than a heavy hollandaise, and makes for a great pairing. The widely available Hugel Muscat, $19, accompanies this smashingly.

Grüner Veltliner is another frequently cited asparagus dance partner. All citrus and green apple, Grüners are refreshing spring sippers that can accompany nearly everything, including difficult veggies like asparagus and artichokes. I like to grill, chill and then dip asparagus tips in a concoction of ponzu (Japanese citrus sauce) and mayo. Alternatively, this grill-and-chill treatment also works with a mustard vinaigrette or shaved Parmesan and balsamic.

Grill until slightly underdone and then whisk the asparagus to the fridge or freezer (don't shock the stalks in water, as that wrecks the flavor). In fact, try not to cook asparagus in water ever, as this makes the stalks limp, and they lose nutrients and flavor. Steam instead.

Grüner Veltliner is roughly a third of the total planting in Austria, the country with which the grape is most associated. It has a bit of fruitiness and white pepper, and a slightly spicy Gobelsburger Kamptal, $16, will assuredly solve your asparagus problem.

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