Eating asparagus is about as close as we get to dine as do the ruminants, most hoofed animals and that great natural lawn mower, the sheep. Asparagus is a grass, after all; just take a good look at it. Unlike the cow, however, we get to enjoy wine with our asparagus - but there’s the rub. Asparagus is difficult for wine in two ways. It’s natively bitter, first of all, and all foods bitter are hard on wine (most greens, for example, or green olives). Moreover, asparagus is very high in the chemicals phosphorous and the sulphurous compound methyl mercaptan, neither a friend to wine (or the, er, urinary tract). Both chemicals can interact with wine to cause a tinny, metallic taste on the palate.
We whammy wine even more by often serving asparagus topped with poached egg, or with the egg and butter sauce hollandaise. Eggs or fat do not “spoil” wine; they just coat the palate so determinedly that they prevent wine from being tasted.
Other “Just Say No” foods include artichokes (high in the chemical cynarin which makes wines taste sweeter than they actually are); Brussels sprouts and spinach (like asparagus, they can make wine taste metallic); milk, yogurt and ice cream (like eggs, their compounds coat the palate); very oily or highly smoked fish (they overpower many wines); and highly acidic foods such as vinaigrettes or pickles, or citrus, tomatoes or mustard (they ruin low-acid wines – and there are plenty of those).
So what wines to enjoy with asparagus, or these other “Just Say No” foods? Take a cue from the Germans, who each spring devour their beloved white asparagus, spargal, with their crisp, refreshing, high-acid Rieslings and Sylvaners.
The wines to favor with asparagus, by and large, are those: high in acidity, either white or red (but white wins over red, as a rule); low in alcohol; and very fresh and young. Such include those Germans; northern Italian whites such as Arneis or Soave; Spanish Albariño; dry and medium-dry Vouvray or Muscadet from the Loire; Bourgogne Aligoté from Burgundy; some Pinot Noirs from cooler climates (Oregon, Burgundy); South African Steen (that country’s word for Chenin Blanc); top-notch Italian Verdicchio or Orvieto; good Italian Barbera; good Gamay (from America or Beaujolais); Piemontese Grignolino; and many Rioja reds.
Stay away from blockbuster or overly manipulated, oaky, high-alcohol wines (many Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs and Merlots). They truly will taste awful with asparagus.
~Bill St. John