The Belgian Wine and Asparagus Battles: #4 – Monovarietal vs. Blend
In this series, I select duos of Belgian wines to match a particular asparagus dish. My not-so-secret intent is to on the one hand showcase delicious wines from our little wine country, and hopefully provide some inspiration for your own quest for the holy asparagus grail: those divine combinations of wine and the ‘white gold’.
We are at our fourth battle in the wine and asparagus series by now, and we’ll linger a bit longer in the delectable Pinot family. This time, we’re pitting a monovarietal, a wine made from just one grape variety, against a blend. Blends (in French: assemblage) are wines in which different grape varieties have been combined in order to complement one another to a (hopefully) harmonious entity.
It all started with a recipe for asparagus with Parmesan and cooked ham, by the Belgian Michelin-star chef Ferdy Debecker. (Find the recipe – in Dutch – here.) My original intent was to find the ideal Belgian wine to go with this dish, but once again it turned out I’m simply unable to follow a recipe to the letter. So we ended up with grilled asparagus with Ganda ham, Parmesan, rocket and toasted hazelnuts, garnished with nutty-peppery green herbs and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Almost identical, right? 😉
This combination of ingredients was inspired by the work I did for my Sommelier-Conseil thesis, in which I studied wine aromas and how herbs and spices work as aroma bridges to bring food and wine closer together. Some of the aroma compounds I wrote about were those we find in different kinds of nuts, those of the maillard reaction, oak maturation, and the molecule rotundone. Rotundone is the aroma compound which gives both white and black peppercorns their archetypal scent, and it has also been detected in cured ham, in oregano, basil and many other well-known herbs.
In this ‘almost like the original’ recipe, I’m playing with precisely these aroma compounds: by grilling the asparagus, by choosing this particular naturally cured ham, and by garnishing with hazelnut oil, pestle-pounded hazelnuts and fresh herbs such as rocket, oregano and the flower tops of lamb’s lettuce. All these have – to varying degrees – a nutty and peppery signature.
A dish like this calls for a lively but not too intense wine, with fresh, fruity acidity to counter the strong salty flavours. It also needs to be at least medium-bodied, so it doesn’t appear too skinny next to the ham, parmesan, hazelnuts and oil.
As a result, we fairly quickly decided on Pinot Blanc, a grape variety which is often considered fairly neutral, but in the right growth conditions and in the hands of a competent winemaker, it can result in very attractive and surprisingly characterful wines.
Pinot Blanc is in Belgium one of the top ten planted grape varieties. We find it in monovarietal wines and in blends, for sparkling as well as still wines. Popular blending partners with Pinot Blanc are several other members of the large Pinot family, such as Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and – just as it is in Luxembourg and especially in Alsace: Auxerrois.
With this dish, we tasted the monovarietal Pinot Blanc 2016 by Château Bon Baron. With 17 hectares, Bon Baron is one of our largest and best-known wine estates, located near the banks of the river Meuse in the South-Belgian province of Namur.
As a worthy duelling partner, we chose the 2018 Pinot Blanc-Auxerrois blend by Domein Pietershof, a small but very promising estate with 2.5 hectares in the Voer region, in the east of Belgium.
Château Bon Baron, Pinot Blanc 2016
It is often said that it takes a difficult vintage to see a winemaker’s true colours appear. In cool wine regions this is even more the case, and for Belgian wines, 2016 is one of those years with mixed reviews. Fortunately, after a difficult start with a soaking wet spring and a cold, cloudy early summer, a warm Indian summer helped to turn the tables and avert disaster.
This Pinot Blanc 2016 has definitely emerged as a very fine wine, and it’s drinking beautifully now. Fresh, joyful acidity and a soft, creamy mouthfeel carry the juicy fruit flavours of green apple, grapefruit and also some ripe, bruised apples and orange zest. Dainty spring blossoms, a lightly smoky minerality and a pinch of mint and anise provide both elegance and complexity. 12% alcohol.
Domein Pietershof, Pinot Blanc-Auxerrois 2018
Our second wine clearly dates from a warmer vintage, which we also notice in the higher alcohol percentage of 13%. The exact blend varies each year, usually dominated by Pinot Blanc, but in 2018 the winemakers opted for 60% Auxerrois.
In the glass we first and foremost notice the intense, golden colour. On the nose we’re greeted by warm, almost tropical fruit, with pineapple and honeydew melon weaving in between layers of bright orchard fruit. Here too we find gentle floral touches and a hint of anise. The wine is fairly full-bodied and shows a touch of alcohol warmth, but it has sufficient acidity for balance. An interesting wine, ready to drink but with certainly a few more years of ageing potential.
Food and Wine: the Verdict
Two charming wines, with many similarities and still a few marked differences: the perfect duo to compete for the hand of this asparagus classic.
Château Bon Baron’s Pinot Blanc 2016 brings an attractive and refreshing touch of citrus to this dish, while the wine’s delicate smokiness provides a great match for the grilled asparagus. This pairing is based on elegance, but with the innate risk that the cured ham might be just a tad too powerful for the wine to fully unfurl its qualities.
Following our motto: ‘anything for science’, we then taste this dish without the ham. And in this case there are no doubts or footnotes: with grilled asparagus with parmesan, rocket, oregano, hazelnut oil, finely pounded hazelnuts and a royal twist of the peppermill, this Pinot Blanc makes the perfect partner.
In contrast, the pairing of this asparagus dish with Pietershof’s Pinot Blanc-Auxerrois 2018 is based on flavour intensity. The ripe fruit traits in the wine bring out the asparagus’ natural sweetness; an effect that’s further supported by the toasted hazelnut garnish and the drops of hazelnut oil. However, this sweetness is immediately countered by the strong salty flavours of Parmesan, Ganda ham and by the peppery herbs and ground black pepper. Furthermore, the intense, contrasting flavours and textures continue to change throughout the tasting, which makes this a very interesting match.
So here we are once more: facing a difficult decision. To cut the knot: with the dish as we initially described it here, so with the naturally cured ham, we had a light preference for the Pinot Blanc – Auxerrois blend. With the version without ham, we choose the monovarietal Pinot Blanc.