The Belgian Wine and Asparagus Battles: #5 – Aromatic Grape Varieties

In this series of wine and asparagus articles, I select a set of Belgian wines to match a specific asparagus dish. This way I want to illustrate the quality and diversity of Belgian wines, while exploring the most important aspects of wine and asparagus pairing.

For the fifth and last battle of this (asparagus) season, I’ve chosen no less than three wines. All of them are made from aromatic grape varieties, and we pair them with a not-so-traditional asparagus dish: grilled white asparagus with herb pesto, burrata and cherry tomatoes. An adventurous combination, for sure, and one of my favourites.

The Dish

Serving white asparagus with pesto is like cursing in church to a purist. But when the pesto contains sufficient citrus tones, and when you top it with a rich, creamy burrata and peppy, delicately sweet cherry tomatoes, it makes a delicious combination. As a bonus, finding the right wine pairings to match this dish is a riveting challenge for wine lovers and sommeliers alike.

Starting in spring and until far into autumn, our urban garden and indoor/outdoor pots shower us with fresh herbs, which I then I love transforming into all kinds of pestos. I can assure you: there are few more delectable ways to get your five-a-day!

On a base of garlic, Parmesan or Pecorino, oil and pine (or other) nuts, I mainly use the edible green leaves that are available at that time, and I lovingly call it my ‘pick & mix pesto’. With a few general principles in mind (and useful herbalist knowledge of what is edible and what isn’t), making this pesto is mainly an intuitive process. Which the ‘recipe’ below will illustrate. ­čśë

But that’s all good, because pick & mix pesto by its very nature will taste different each time, and reflect the personality of its maker as well as the ‘terroir’ it came from. Furthermore, it’s filled to the brim with vitamins and minerals from the freshly picked, seasonal greens.

Pick & Mix Pesto

The foundation of my pick & mix pesto is a composition of garlic, aged (hard) cheese, nuts, oil and a pinch of salt and pepper.

We love garlic here at home, so I tend to use half or even a whole bulb per pesto batch. But I do blanch the cloves first, because raw garlic would dominate the pesto (and therefore the dish) way too hard. Simmering them for about a minute in water on a low boil suffices, and don’t forget to cool the garlic cloves, so you don’t add it to the herbs and oil when they’re still hot. Chilling in ice water works, but I usually just pop them in the freezer for 15 minutes, while washing and destemming the herbs.

Classic pesto is prepared with pine nuts, but you can use other nuts as you prefer, or leave them out if you or any of your guests are allergic. Here I took a handful of pine nuts and peeled almonds, in roughly equal volumes. Other times I use walnuts, macadamias or hazelnuts, to name but a few.

You can experiment with cheeses as well. Parmesan and/or Pecorino would be the traditional choices, but this pesto works with all kinds of aged, salty, crumbly cheeses, whether it’s a mature Gouda, Cheddar, Manchego, Montasio or even Mimolette.

Olive oil is most commonly used, but here too you can opt for another oil, or a blend of oils, to accentuate a certain flavour. I often add a dash of hazelnut or sesame oil to get a lovely hint of toasted nuts in the pesto; or almond or pumpkin seed oil for a milder, lightly sweet nutty nuance. However, be careful with strongly flavoured oils, because they will quickly overpower the other ingredients in your pesto, and some add a tinge of bitterness as well. Just experiment. In the end, as always, it’s up to you and what you enjoy, and there’s no pesto police to answer to if you’d have gone way overboard.

Now when it comes to edible greens, you can go all out with what is growing in your garden, in pots and possibly in your wider environment. An important guideline is to find a good balance of strongly aromatic herbs and more refreshing, cooling plants. The first will add depth and flavour intensity, while the second will lift and enliven your pesto, so it titillates rather than tires your taste buds.

This particular instance of my pick & mix pesto gets its strong flavours from basil, lovage, horseradish leaf, green garlic, oregano and cilantro. These are refreshed and balanced by green fennel, different kinds of mint, the cucumber-with-a-hint-of-anise flavours of salad burnet and immortality herb, and several citrus herbs, such as lemon balm and especially lemon verbena. I also added the grated zest and juice of a lime for extra brightness in both colour and flavours.

As I mentioned before: for sauces like this: don’t confine yourself to a strict recipe. Use what you have at hand, trust your taste buds and get to know new ingredients and combinations step by step. Also: if you go picking herbs in your garden or neighbourhood: be careful and make sure you have the right edible plant in front of you, and that it’s not protected by law.

The Wines

Wines produced from aromatic grape varieties such as Riesling and Gew├╝rztraminer are popular pairing partners for spicy and oriental dishes, such as Thai or Indian curries. This is no coincidence: most of the spices that are common in these cuisines, e.g. coriander, cumin, ginger, lemongrass, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and star anise, contain aroma molecules such as linalol, geraniol, nerol and limonene, which belong to the class of organic compounds called ‘terpenes’. Terpenes are hydrocarbons we find in many plants. They protect the plants from disease, fungi and bacteria, and their scent attracts insects for reproduction. These terpenes are aromatic compounds that typically have floral / herbaceous / tree-sap scents, often with a citrus quality. Think lavender, rosemary, juniper or bay leaf, but also roses, orange blossom, lemon balm, lemongrass and citrus zest. The same terpenes can be detected in many aromatic wines, and play an important role in their overall aroma profile.

For this food and wine pairing experiment, I selected three different aromatic wines, with increasing aromatic character and intensity:

  • the 2018 M├╝ller Thurgau by Kluisberg (Hageland) as a lightly aromatic wine;
  • the 2017 Riesling by Aldeneyck from the Meuse Valley in Limburg as a classic representative of the aromatic grape variety Riesling;
  • the 2018 Pinot Gris-Gew├╝rztraminer-Riesling blend by Pietershof, as an example of an intensely aromatic Belgian wine.

Kluisberg, M├╝ller Thurgau 2018

In the middle of the eighties, Jos Vanlaer started to make fruit wines as a hobby. Shortly afterwards he planted his first vines. In the meantime Kluisberg has become a 7-hectare family business, in which also his wife Dani├źlla and their children and grandchildren are involved. They make still white and red wines from traditional grape varieties, and also a number of lovely ros├ęs. One of their ros├ę wines is even a Merlot, which is very rare in Belgium. As a bonus, Kluisberg’s entire range is very affordable, which price/quality wise makes them some of the most interesting Belgian wines.

This monovarietal M├╝ller-Thurgau is a mildly aromatic and refreshing wine, best drunk young and ‘on its fruit’. An assorted bouquet of peach, grapefruit zest, honeysuckle, citrus blossom, pear and fennel invites to a first sip – and then some. On the palate the wine is much leaner and more crisp than the nose lead us to believe, with bright acidity and flavours of gooseberries, star fruit, lemon, green apple and a sniff of fennel. 12% alcohol.

Wijndomein Aldeneyck, Riesling 2017

We started this series of wine and asparagus battles with two wines by Wijndomein Aldeneyck, one of the biggest estates in Belgium. Therefore it seemed fitting to end the series with their Riesling. If I had to choose just one grape variety as my favourite, Riesling would be it. So you can imagine my excitement when star winemaker Karel Henckens started planting it in the Meuse Valley. Belgian Riesling is still rare, but based on those I’ve tasted, I’m filled with hope for the future.

This young scion of the Aldeneyck family already shows great character, a satisfying flavour intensity and good length. A mouthful of juicy nectarine, citrus and pineapple is refined with overtones of roses, smoky flint, pine forest, lemon zest and rosemary. A pinch of residual sugar balances the high acidity. 12.5% alcohol.

Domein Pietershof, Pinot Gris-Gew├╝rztraminer-Riesling 2018

Domein Pietershof has also featured in an earlier article, but this pairing experiment would not have been complete without their blend of Pinot Gris with aromatic superstars Gewürztraminer ánd Riesling.

This is probably the most aromatic dry wine produced in our country, which is not surprising with part Riesling and especially Gew├╝rztraminer in the blend. You smell it as soon as your nose approaches the glass: a rich and intense perfume of lychee, ripe pineapple, rose water, orange blossom and citrus zest. In monovarietal Gew├╝rz I often miss acidity, but here, thanks to blending partners Riesling and cold-climate Pinot Gris, this wine has all the acidity it needs. It’s a charming, energetic and layered aromatic wine, with 13% alcohol. In a blind tasting you wouldn’t guess it’s Belgian, presenting a nice challenge for sommeliers and seasoned wine lovers.

Food and Wine: the Verdict

Three aromatic wines full of floral-spicy-resinous terpenes, in ascending order of intensity. To its side: a plate of grilled asparagus with chunks of creamy, oozing burrata, slices of cherry tomato and the magical pick & mix pesto ‘a la casa’. If this isn’t foodie heaven, it’s certainly close!

Kluisberg’s 2018 M├╝ller Thurgau works very well with this dish. Its floral, fruity and herbaceous aromas are close to the basic components of this pesto, and the refreshing citrus acidity comes out beautifully, which balances out the burrata’s creamy mouthfeel. A delicate grapefruit bitter adds tension to the finish. When it comes to weight, the wine is situated between the asparagus and the garnishes: it has enough power to stay upright next to the pesto, with enough subtlety so it doesn’t overpower the asparagus. For all intents and purposes, this is an ideal asparagus wine, for this particular preparation as well as for more refined/restrained asparagus classics.

The 2017 Aldeneyck Riesling also matches this dish particularly well. Especially its zippy acidity, terpenes and smoky minerality stand out. This Riesling could partner more traditional asparagus dishes as well, but its true added value lies here, in the harmony between wine and pesto, accentuated by the lime zest, citrus herbs and the tomatoes and burrata. The myriad of flavours and textures intertwine in a playful and adventurous manner, and even the pinch of residual sugar in the wine integrates seamlessly into the whole. With a slight lead over the M├╝ller-Thurgau, this Riesling is our favourite for this dish.

And then there’s Pietershof’s singular, fragrant blend of Pinot Gris, Gew├╝rztraminer and Riesling. Not an obvious choice – nor an easy pairing – with an asparagus dish, but I wanted to test how far we can stretch the aromatic bridges between food and wine. And this combination works too, especially for adventurous spirits, and with a few caveats. When you approach the glass, you are greeted by intense floral and sweet fruit aromas, which can seem odd with a savoury dish if you’re not familiar with this type of pairings. However, the aromas match, and this shows even more when you taste the food and wine together. Then the full richness of the herbs in this pesto comes into play, and the intricate aromatic connections become apparent. And finally, when the wine finishes on a hint of floral bitters, it nudges the asparagus back to the forefront.
This really is the kind of pairing that resides on the edge of our comfort zone – or just outside of it. A match you’d want to experiment with, but wouldn’t dare to serve to just anyone. And for this reason we’re ranking this pairing here in third place. However, this doesn’t detract from the quality of this wine, or its food pairing potential. Be sure to try this aromatic luminary with curries, oriental dishes with five spice, or with other richly seasoned and spicy dishes.

Our Belgian asparagus season traditionally runs until June 24th. We wish you heaps of fun with your own experiments, and if you have a wine and asparagus tip you want to share, please do so in the comments below.


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