Standing in the supermarket the other day, I was about to add a bundle of asparagus from the towering green stacks to my cart for dinner, when I remembered that many people consider the vegetable wine's worst enemy.
To tell you the truth, I've never paid much attention to that old notion. It's a fact that asparagus, a member of the lily family, contains the sulfurous amino acid methionine. This compound, together with the plant's intense grassy flavor, can make many wines taste dank, vegetal, or just plain weird. But I love asparagus, and I love wine. In my dining room, the two do get served together. That day I realized that whenever asparagus is in the picture, I instinctively gravitate to Sauvignon Blanc, and I wondered what the experts in matching food and wine do. I decided to call a few of them.
"Asparagus makes everything you drink with it taste green," said Sid Goldstein, author of The Wine Lover's Cookbook. "The worst white wine with asparagus is Chardonnay, which not only tastes vegetal, but also exaggeratedly oaky." However, like me, Goldstein loves both asparagus and wine. His solution? "Steam or microwave the asparagus until almost done, then grill it and serve it with Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio. The grilling process ― maybe it's the flavor of the char ― takes the bitter edge off the greenness of the asparagus. Then you can create a harmonious balance by serving it with a wine that also has light green flavors."
Jerry Comfort, culinary director of Beringer Wine Estates in St. Helena, California, called asparagus a "wine-challenged" food. There are two solutions, he said. First, "use seasonings and sauces to bridge the flavors of the asparagus and the wine." Second, "stay away from wines that have a lot of oak and a lot of tannin." As for those flavor bridges, Comfort suggests hollandaise or even mayonnaise. Wines to avoid include oaky Chardonnays and highly tannic Cabernet Sauvignons. The wines Comfort likes with asparagus include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Beaujolais, Dolcetto, and white Zinfandel.
Finally, I called Philippe Jeanty, chef-owner of Bistro Jeanty in Yountville, California. "The best thing to do is grill the asparagus and serve it with a creamy dressing," he said. And having done that, what wine would he drink? "Pinot Noir. The char character from the grilling works wonderfully with Pinot, which is both light-bodied and earthy." Jeanty had perhaps the wisest advice of all: "The French bistro philosophy is 'Enjoy life!' In a three-star restaurant, which is more like going to church, well, you may need to be more concerned with perfection. But here at Bistro Jeanty, we believe you should eat and drink whatever makes you feel good. Not everything needs to be analyzed."
SUNSET'S STEAL OF THE MONTH: Fontana Candida Pinot Grigio delle Venezie 1998 (Veneto, Italy), $8. Simple and ultralight, with touches of bitter almond and arugula flavors. Buckets of wine like this are drunk every day in Italian trattorias.
PINOT GRIGIO ― A SPRING AND SUMMER WINNER
Besides being asparagus-friendly, Pinot Grigio is everything most of us want in a spring and summer quaff ― light, crisp, and very refreshing. Pinot Grigio, or Pinot Gris, as it's known in some places, primarily France and Oregon, ranges from ultralight in flavor and body to fairly bold and substantial. The crispest, sassiest, most thirst-quenching versions come from the Alto Adige and Veneto regions of northern Italy. The fullest-bodied and most concentrated come from Alsace, France. Oregon Pinot Gris, when it's good, is between the two. California Pinot Grigios, on the other hand, can be all over the board (many, frankly, are disappointing). Here are some winners.
Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio 1998 (Alto Adige, Italy), $12. Possibly the best Pinot Grigio in Italy. Bracingly fresh, with gorgeous mineral, ginger, and almond flavors.
Byron Pinot Gris 1998 (Santa Maria Valley, CA), $17. Creamy and round, with sensational vanilla and apple spice cake flavors.
Chehalem Pinot Gris 1998 (Willamette Valley, OR), $14. Floral and lemony; simple and satisfying.
Trimbach Reserve "Personelle" Pinot Gris 1996 (Alsace, France), $34. Possibly the richest and most beautiful Pinot Gris in the world. Minerally and steely, with hints of peaches and cream.
Zenato Pinot Grigio delle Venezie 1998 (Veneto, Italy), $10. Floral, light, and creamy, with hints of peaches and almonds.