The Belgian Wine and Asparagus Battles: #2 – Old vs. New
After our general wine and asparagus pairing tips, and last month’s first asparagus and wine duel, we’re up to our second battle. In this series we focus on classic asparagus recipes, with which we taste two Belgian wines each time. These are carefully selected for their potential as asparagus partners, to showcase the diversity of Belgian wines, ánd to introduce the main aspects and pitfalls of pairing wine and asparagus.
This time we experimented with the traditional asparagus ‘Flemish style’ recipe, by using the same flavours but very different textures. Instead of melted butter and mashed or crumbled hard-boiled eggs, we opted for a smooth, rich mousseline sauce, a poached egg and some finely chopped parsley. We cooked the white asparagus sous vide in a hot water bath (about half an hour at 84 °C) and we hand-whisked the mousseline the old-fashioned way.
With this dish we chose first of all the ‘Witte Kapittel’, by the historic estate Ten Kapittelberg. This is a rather restrained blend of classic grape varieties, which have already earnt their stripes with asparagus.
We contrasted this with a bigger, more voluptuous wine, made from the hybrid Souvignier Gris, made by Vin de Liège, a young cooperative with a beautiful new wine cellar about twenty kilometres north of Liège.
Ten Kapittelberg, Witte Kapittel 2016
‘Landgoed Ten Kapittelberg’ is located in Herselt, in the southern part of the Antwerp Kempen area, where it touches Hageland. Many centuries ago, this region would already have produced the sacramental wine for the abbeys of Averbode and Tongerlo. In 1963 the Kappitelhoeve homestead was rebuilt, after the original building burnt down during the First World War. Shortly afterwards the vineyard was planted. And here’s a tip for lovers of wine history, travel and tourism: you can taste their wines onsite in the restored 15th century barn.
On the south slopes of the Kapittelberg, the Willekens family now grows a range of cold-climate grape varieties from Luxemburg, Germany and Alsace. Among others the Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois that were assembled in this 2016 ‘Witte Kapittel’.
This is a dry and lightly aromatic wine, with only 11.5% alcohol. On the nose we find citrus, apple and subtle floral touches, to which the palate adds a solid grapefruit bitter. It’s best drunk young: this 2016 is already exploring its limits. Which is no objection for asparagus pairings, by the way: wines with a few years behind their belts often match asparagus better than the most recent vintage.
Vin de Liège, A Capella 2018
Souvignier Gris is a crossing of the well-known black grape Cabernet Sauvignon and the more obscure German white variety Bronner. Don’t let the name ‘Souvignier Gris’ confuse you, though: there is only a distant family connection to Sauvignon Gris, which is a grey (actually pink) mutation of Sauvignon Blanc.
Souvignier Gris has been created in the eighties in Freiburg, Germany, as a so-called PIWI, a ‘pilzwiderstandsfähige’ or fungus-resistant variety. PIWIs are the subject of much discussion between winegrowers: some swear by it because it allows for fewer treatments in difficult viticultural climates such as ours. But others stick with the classic grape varieties, which they consider of higher quality. Often enough it results in almost religious debates, which I try not to get involved in. As a sommelier, my main interest is in what ends up in the bottle (and the glass), and I’ve tasted plenty of delightful wines from the different types of grapes.
Like this ‘A Capella’, for example. The 2018 vintage’s hot, dry summer and sunny autumn are obvious in this wine, especially in its intensity and the warm, round, creamy mouthfeel. Not surprising, with 14% alcohol on the label. Fortunately the upbeat acidity and a clean citrus bitter create the necessary balance.
The wine in itself has really surprised me – in a good way. In a blind tasting I would never have pinpointed it as a Belgian wine. The 2018 A Capella is atypical for our cool country, to say the least. It rather reminds me of a ripe Pinot Gris, or the dry wines made of Petit or Gros Manseng in the Southwest of France. Furthermore, it has characteristics of an orange wine, in look as well as flavour profile, even though it wasn’t vinified in this manner. In order to be as correct and complete as possible: this is not just due to the vintage, but also to the personality of Souvignier Gris itself.
On the nose and the palate, we mainly find orange notes, tropical fruit, beeswax and walnuts, with an interesting finish where citrus bitters are interwoven, with even a hint of tannin. 30% of this wine was aged briefly in 500-liter barrels, which adds a subtle spiciness that knits together the many other layers into a rich and energetic whole.
Without the dish, just looking at the wines, we had a clear preference for the the A Capella because of its unique character and complexity. With a caveat: this is not the most accessible kind of wine; its profile certainly deviates from what many people consider a ‘classic white wine’. But for open-minded, curious wine lovers and sommeliers this is a golden find – and an excellent trickster in blind tastings.
However, with the subtlety of the white asparagus with mousseline sauce and poached egg, the Witte Kapittel is the actual victor of this battle. First of all: the wine and the dish play in the same weight category, which is always a bonus when it comes to food and wine pairing. On top of this, the wine’s bitter notes, quite noticeable when we tasted the wine as such, suddenly become a strong point when paired with the dish. Cushioned by the smooth, velvety sauce and the gooey runny egg yolk, and offset by the generous pinch of salt on the plate, the wine adds to a balanced, enjoyable combination.