Asparagus frightens the bejeezus out of wine.
Just a few strands on a plate is enough to send shivers of pure terror through buttery Chardonnays. Just mention the word to Cabernet Sauvignon and it will collapse into a fetal position, bellowing with fear.
OK—maybe not literally. But the king of vegetables is notorious for striking down the finest vintages. That big Silver Oak that cost a fortune? It ends up dank and fetid, like a Medieval prison cell. One of California’s famed Chardonnays steeped in oak? Like licking centerfield at the Oakland Coliseum.
And yet restaurants persist in dangling asparagus from menus, taunting sommeliers.
“It can be tricky,” Sardine Factory cellar master Stephen Caldwell says, referring to the task of pairing wine with asparagus. “Usually it’s more of a side dish, but if it’s part of the main dish, you really have to think about it.”
And Caldwell has thought about the problem quite a bit. He suggests a dry white Alsatian varietal, like a Riesling or Gewurztraminer.
“A floral nose white wine works very well,” he explains.
Ah—but what if someone orders a big, juicy hunk of prime beef? That’s when asparagus rears up and prepares its talons.
Yeah, yeah. No talons. Let’s just say the vegetable is not very friendly toward tannic wines—Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, high-end Malbecs, Barolo (thanks to Nebbiolo and it’s strapping tannins) and such. These are the very things you want alongside red meat.
John Malloway, owner of Monte Vista Wines & Spirits in Monterey has a solution.
“I’d lean toward asparagus with fish or chicken,” he says. “So a Sauvignon Blanc would work.”
But you’re at Sardine Factory or The Whaling Station or Seventh and Dolores. There’s no chicken at steak places.
Well, there is. If you want to get technical.
The usual suggestion would be a Pinot Noir—a wine prized for its versatility when it comes to food pairing. However, Caldwell cautions against this approach.
“We’re right in the heart of Pinot country,” he observes. “But our Pinot has so much depth.”
Not a good thing, in this case. Asparagus is a hater and would casually obliterate all of that valued nuance.
Lenora Carey of Big Sur Vineyards points to one of her white blends as an option. The Big Sur white involves Grenache Blanc and Viognier.
“Asparagus is very distinct and strong,” she points out. “Viognier is an aromatic varietal with bright fruit. It softens the edges.”
So why is the green stalk so vexing? Well, it has something to do with methionine and other nasty, sulfuric amino acids that...um...I’m guessing don’t play nicely with some aspects of red wine.
How did science get involved in this? Carboxylic acid? Probably pretty shady, as well.
Sid Goldstein, the author of The Wine Lover’s Cookbook, told Sunset’s Karen MacNeil-Fife that “Asparagus makes everything you drink with it taste green”—which is a relatively kind way of putting it. It even slaughters oaked white wines.
“The worst white wine with asparagus is Chardonnay, which not only tastes vegetal, but also exaggeratedly oaky,” Goldstein added.
Yet diners love asparagus—green, white or purple. Travel through Germany or Austria in the spring and it’s served with pretty much every meal, which explains why the dry white wines of that area are so compatible.
And there are some work-arounds that help.
“I grill it so it chars a little,” Carey points out. This softens the bitter grassy bite of asparagus, allowing it to open up to more wine options, such as a European-style Pinot Noir. Drenching the spears in Hollandaise or another sauce, reducing them down in risotto, smothering them in cheese—all aid in the pairing.
Or you can just not worry too much about it.
“It comes down to the individual,” Caldwell says. If a diner wants steak, asparagus and a big red wine, that’s their choice. He does, however, try to look for the wine that will suffer the least. He also points out that it is OK to drink certain white wines with red meat.
Caldwell’s philosophy is simple: If it’s what you like, it’s all good.
Still, for a proper pairing, he explains, “You really have to convince someone to have a white wine.”
In answer to the Burning Question, it is indeed possible to pair wine with asparagus. However, one must be careful and select a from a certain range of whites. There is, however, a pairing no one mentioned. Odd Fox Wine from the Fox Barn Winery in Shelby, Michigan—smack in the middle of Michigan’s vast asparagus fields—is made from...really?...It’s made from asparagus.
That can’t be right.
No, it is right. A decade ago, winemaker Kellie Fox turned out her first vintage of the vegetable wine. For a 2011 article in the Detroit Free Press, she told reporter Ellen Creager—who apparently was too disturbed by the thought to sample it herself—that the wine has a modest asparagus note and a bit of vegetal sweetness. Which still sounds odd.
It started off worse.
Fox told the Free Press that Odd Fox started when her husband showed up with a tub of mashed asparagus and said “Do something with this”—which brings up a couple of observations: mashed asparagus is available for purchase? And by the tub? And just what kind of husband pulls a trick like that?
Three observations, sorry. To continue:
“So I added water and sugar and yeast, and it started fermenting,” she said. “It did not smell great.”
Maybe that’s why no one mentioned the asparagus wine option. It’s just too frightening.