A bit of apocryphal history* for you: Cleopatra, of lethal-asp-clutching fame, is purported to have ended it all with a spear of asparagus rather than a venomous serpent. My reaction to asparagus isn’t quite as dramatic as the Nile Queen’s. However, few vegetables, when mismatched to wine, mete out palate punishment like the shoots of Asparagus officinalis.
My oeno-advice to all brave souls attempting asparagus-wine harmony: Bring a duo to this duel. Allow me to explain. Asparagus commonly appears on your dinner plate in one of two roles. It may headline dinner as the main attraction – as it does with this goat cheese and asparagus pizza. More commonly, it plays the supporting role of vegetable, and leaves the spotlight to a main course, like steak. One wine won’t handle asparagus in both roles.
When it comes to asparagus as co-star to a thick, spice-rubbed T-bone, I focus much of my wine attention on the meat. However, one must keep an eye on these shifty veggie spears at all times. My preference in this situation is to go with a big, bold, slightly spicy Spanish red wine. My current meat and asparagus amigo is Tempranillo-based wine from the Toro region. Toro reds are bold and spicy – perfect for a spicy slab of beef. Well-made Toro reds are also surprisingly balanced. In other words, these wines aren’t flabby – they offer crisp acidity to lift up the bold flavors and high alcohol content (14% and above). This quality serves them well. The ‘weedy’ or metallic flavors that often accompany red wine & asparagus pairings are avoided thanks to Toro’s triumvirate of concentrated flavor, spicy notes and bright acidity. The end result is a subdued vegetable, which accents, rather than dominates, dinner. One Toro to try: Bodega Numanthia Termes 2003 ($25).
Asparagus, when it behaves, can be the focus of a wonderful springtime supper. Yet, when I think of springtime suppers, I don’t think of big reds – I picture graceful white wine. The sad fact is that asparagus can pummel a delicate white like Sancerre (Sauvignon Blanc from France). However, I do like the inherent acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. Enter Austrian Sauvignon Blanc - more specfically, Styrian SB. Styria is a fascinating region in southern Austria. Sauvignon Blanc from this area is indeed graceful, but it also packs a punch. Think of it as a ballerina with a crowbar. Once asparagus takes center stage, Styrian Sauvignon Blanc accents the flavors with fresh acidity and prevents palate dominance with a full body and creamy finish. One might call this a beautiful Austro-Asparagus wine waltz. My current Styrian Sauvignon Blanc favorite: Sabathi Poharnig Sauvignon Blanc 2003 ($30)
Of course there are more than two ways to tame asparagus. Tell me which wines you enjoy with this complicated veggie.