White Gold, Liquid Gold: Pairing Wine and Asparagus
We’ve been looking forward to it for a while, and now it’s finally upon us: the annual asparagus season. Until June 24th we are able to enjoy the Asparagus officinalis L., more poetically known as: the queen of vegetables, the white gold, the edible ivory or ‘pointes d’amour’.
In these strange times of lockdown and closed restaurants, my homecook fingers have been itching to get to work. Timeless classics such as cream of asparagus soup and asparagus ‘Flemish style’ will definitely be on the menu in the coming months. I also love asparagus topped with the traditional hollandaise or mousseline sauce, cured ham, grey North Sea shrimps and smoked salmon; or replacing endives in a spring-season ham rolls gratin.
Whether you go for traditional recipes or more exotic experimentation, this regal vegetable deserves the right liquid punctuation. It’s often thought that finding the right wine to go with asparagus isn’t easy. Especially with the white asparagus we love so much here. They have a fine, delicate bite and mouthfeel, which needs to be allowed to shine. Their taste is quite subtle, with vegetal notes, a bit sweet and bitter at the same time. They can also be prepared in many different ways, and therefore, as always when it comes to food and wine pairing, it’s important to take the cooking methods and accompaniments into account when choosing your wine.
White or Red?
As a general guideline, we look for wines with sufficient character, to complement the taste and texture of asparagus without overpowering it. Wines that show enough freshness, without overly taut acidity, hefty tannins or too much bitterness, all of which would overemphasise the asparagus’ innate bitter touch.
For that reason: too bad for red wine fanatics, but red with asparagus is not the best match. Red wines can work with some green asparagus dishes, but for the fragile finesse of white asparagus, they tend to be too big, too powerful and especially too tannic.
If you’re not into white wines, you could try a blanc de noirs (a white wine made from black grapes), or a dry, not too exuberantly fruity rosé. As an alternative: grill the asparagus and combine them with ham, a firmer type of fish or a delicate piece of meat. Then it’s possible to accompany the dish with a light, preferably unoaked red wine. A few suggestions: wines made from the Gamay grape (e.g. from Beaujolais, France), Alsace Pinot Noir, German Früh- or Spätburgunder, and a range of other light reds from cool or even cold climates, such as Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands, etc.
However, for me, the best asparagus wines are white: lively, dry, fresh wines. It’s even better when they show a bit of character – and age! Steely, chalky and light floral touches work as well, but be careful with oak ageing, too much residual sugar, excessive and tart acidity, high alcohol or intensely perfumed wines. These are not by definition excluded from the asparagus table, because much will depend on the cooking methods and the side dishes you’re serving. But be careful with these wines, and be certain to try out your pairing in advance, before presenting them confidently to your table companions.
#Drinklocal: Brilliantly Belgian
Lively, dry, refreshing wines from cool climates. Like Belgium, then? Most definitely! The quality, quantity and availability of our wines has never been this high, and in challenging times like these, it is even more important to support our Belgian winemakers – and wine shops, for that matter.
Fortunately, many of the grape varieties that do well here, are classic asparagus partners. Yet another thing we have in common with our German neighbours, who are just as proud of their ‘Spargel’ as we are.
Popular asparagus companions from Belgium and its neighbouring countries are: Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder), Auxerrois, Silvaner/Sylvaner, (dry) Muscat, Müller-Thurgau, Kerner, Gutedel (Chasselas) and the lesser-known Souvignier Gris or Bacchus. But even our Rieslings, (dry) Gewürztraminers and unoaked Chardonnays often pair well with creamy and more complex asparagus dishes.
International Wine Pairings With Asparagus
Outside of our borders, it’s well worth having a look at other asparagus-loving cool-climate regions and their favourite local wine pairings. Germany and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg come to mind, but also Switzerland and especially Austria.
Both the slimmer and rounder versions of Austria’s crown jewel, Grüner Veltliner, pair well with a range of asparagus dishes. Steiermark produces attractive Sauvignon Blancs, and e.g. many field blends from the DAC denomination Wiener Gemischter Satz, can be surprisingly delicious with asparagus.
For inspiration and recipes, check out Wines of Germany’s wine and asparagus web page, and the Austrian Wine Marketing Board even has a 24-page brochure dedicated to wine and asparagus.
In France, dry and delicately aromatic Alsace wines tend to be a good choice, as are the elegant and mineral Sauvignon Blancs from the Loire Valley. Do check out the great-value Côtes de Gascogne blends of Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Sauvignon Blanc; subtle and refined Viognier wines or the more slender and bright Bordeaux and Burgundy whites (including Chablis, Saint-Bris and the Aligoté grape denominations Bourgogne Aligoté and Bouzeron.
For lovers of unique, peculiar flavours and daring food pairing experiments: try a Savagnin or Chardonnay-Savagnin Blend from Jura, a Jurançon Sec or a beautifully mature Loire Chenin Blanc.
If you’ve lost your heart to Southern European wines, do look for cooler-climate wines. In Italy, many whites from Alto Adige or Valle d’Aosta come to mind, but also the grape varieties Arneis, Soave, Verdicchio and Vermentino. Spain has the scrumptious Rias Baixas Albariño and several of the finer Verdejos; while Greece is a contender with Assyrtiko, Malagouzia or even Moschofilero. Many of these match green asparagus well, and the finest specimen can also complement white asparagus dishes.
In the coming weeks I’ll be devoting more attention to (Belgian) wine and asparagus pairings here on my blog, on Instagram and Facebook. Until we meet again: take care of yourself and your loved ones, enjoy the white gold to the full, and don’t hesitate to share your own wine and asparagus tips with us in the comments below!