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Matching food and wine: how to deal with asparagus

Posted by Torsten 08 Jun 2010

Asparagus is said to be difficult to match with wine. The reason is that asparagus contains substances that can make wine taste bitter, vegetal and strangely 'green', sometimes even bordering on outright weird. If you stick to a few very simply rules though there is no reason to be afraid of asparagus and wine, quite the opposite - it can be an excellent match, as I discovered last weekend when I serves a Riesling with pan-fried smoaked cod and English asparagus. Read on for a little background and, most importantly, a few suggestion on how to match asparagus and wine.

So why then is asparagus difficult with wine? The culprits are methionine, a sulfurous amino acid, and compounds known as thiols. I particularly like what Wikipedia has to say about Methanethiol, a by-product produced by the metabolism of asparagus:

Methanethiol (also known as methyl mercaptan) is a colorless gas with a smell like rotten cabbage. It is a natural substance found in the blood, brain, and other animal as well as plant tissues. It is disposed of through animal feces. It occurs naturally in certain foods, such as some nuts and cheese. It is also one of the main chemicals responsible for bad breath and the smell of flatus.

Mercaptan is also one of the components of skunk spray... While eating asparagus on its own is fine, methionine and the thiols do not go very well with wine - certain types of wine, that is. Oaked wines and those with high level of tannins make a particularly unhappy combination that enhances bitterness and can make the wine taste outright weird. Stay away from oaked Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and similar, heavy wines.

So how do you match asparagus? First of all go either for a light, unoaked red wine with low tannins, such as a Pinot Noir, or pick a white wine such as Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling or Silvaner. In Germany, the food friendly Silvaner is one of the favourites if it comes to asparagus and I would highly recommend it, much more so than Sauvignon Blanc that appears to be an asparagus favourite in other countries (where, sadly, Silvaner is not know as well as it deserves). Look for a light, fresh wine - I particularly like the citrusy flavour of Riesling in the combination with asparagus.

Secondly, and this is still the most important rule for matching food and wine, think of sauces. The sauce is much more important than the other ingredients of a dish when it comes to matching wine as it dominates the flavour and can marry components that otherwise would not work so well together. Think of it as a flavour bridge. Hollandaise is of course the classic with asparagus and it makes it more wine friendly.

Thirdly, grill or fry your asparagus. I like to cook or steam it for a few minutes and then grill or pan fry it. Grilling, in particular char grilling, seems to take some of the edge of the bitterness of the asparagus.

To serve with the above cod (smoked cod that I pan fried in butter with ginger and some lemon juice), I cooked the asparagus for 2-3 minutes and then fried it with butter, olive oil, garlic, ginger and a splash of lemon juicy. This not only tastes well on its own, the frying and the creamy, citrusy sauce make a great flavour bridge to bring together the asparagus with the light, fresh Riesling - I picked a dry late harvest Riesling from Baden, Salwey's 2008 RS trocken, with lovely citrus acidity and a flowery component.

Interesting!Better have a

Interesting!Better have a wine breath than an asparagus breaht then ! ;)
I think I would match it with a Southern French White right now with the nice weather. Viogner, or Marsanna Roussanne or a cuvée of all 3. Now I got a crave, thanks! Greets, Alex

Asparagus and French wine

Thanks for your comment, Alex. I think the main issue with asparagus would be the infamous 'asparagus pee' - interestingly not everyone suffers from that. Southern France sounds good to me too, I just don't know enough about the region to make any useful recommendations. Much of the Viognier I see here in the UK is cheaper supermarket stuff from the New World, which I am not too attracted too. With a good one though I can see asparagus work quite well. Maybe you can take that as an excuse and have some tonight?


I'll definitely have some

I'll definitely have some asparagus tonight, but white as we often have it in Germany. But now it's getting tricky, since asparagus is side to a nice piece of beef (Côte de boeuf) which cries for a strong Cabernet.. What a dilemma, I think I have no other choice but eat the asparagus as a starter! :P

White asparagus

I love white asparagus; it is such a shame it is so difficult to get in the UK! If you are brave, you could grill your asparagus or fry it in a griddled pan, which should help. Maybe be even braver and try a red wine béarnaise and report back if it all came together with your Cabernet?

maybe I'll grill a few on the

maybe I'll grill a few on the side, but the big part will def be boiled and served just with butter, salt and pepper (maybe some chives). It's just the tradition here and what people expect! :) But thanks for the tips, red bearnaise sounds awesome!

Nothing beats white asparagus

Nothing beats white asparagus with butter! If only I had some... Well, at least there is good green asparagus in England. Enjoy your dinner!