Asparagus and Wine
“Do you know that the front of your house smells just like Sauvignon Blanc?” François Chartier asked as he arrived to demonstrate some of his work in pairing wine and food. Eucalyptus trees surround my home in San Francisco, and their distinct menthol-fueled aromatics pervade the air.
Chartier’s nose is acutely sensitive, which may help explain why aromatic links between food and wine lie at the heart of his theories on vinous matchmaking in a recent French-language book, Papilles et Molecules. I wrote about Chartier and his book in two blogs this past February. An English-language version is in the works for publication this fall, to be titled Taste Buds and Molecules.
Consulting with scientists and delving for hours into arcane reference books, the Canadian sommelier has identified the same aromatic chemicals in both sides of the equation when wines and foods work well together. One tasting on his visit explored the connections that drive successful matches with asparagus.
As Chartier says in the video clip below, most wine books count asparagus as an enemy of the grape. Chartier disputes that notion, and he proved it with both a Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Sauvignon.
A key aromatic element of asparagus is 3-alkyl 2-methoxy pyrazine, the same aromatic chemical that also produces the “green” character in bell peppers and green peas. The family of chemicals called pyrazines appears prominently in grapes of the Sauvignon family. Winegrowers usually try hard to minimize their effect in the wine, otherwise the flavors of bell peppers or asparagus can overwhelm the fruit. But these chemicals hide in the most successful wines, coloring the flavor profile with pleasant grass or mint notes.
Theoretically then, Sauvignon Blanc ought to make a comfortable match with asparagus. We opened a bottle of Patrick Coulbois Pouilly-Fumé Les Coques 2008. This French Sauvignon Blanc by itself had the grassy, herbal aromatics that are typical of the grape, nicely balanced with juicy flavors of grapefruit and lime. With fat, fresh asparagus spears simply steamed, the wine got a bit more tart but the flavors expanded, mostly toward the citrus end of the spectrum but also bringing out some peach character in the wine. It was a lively, lovely match.
Why did the wine get more tart? Probably because fresh asparagus' natural sweetness emphasized the wine’s acidity. But the balance did not go out of bounds, and most interestingly the match minimized the grassy flavors in the wine. Why? My theory, and Chartier concurred, is that flavors in food tend to cancel out similar flavors in wine sipped with it. So the grassiness of the asparagus made the grassiness of the wine fade into the background, allowing other flavors to emerge more strongly, in this case the citrus and stone fruit. All to the good.
“I chose a Pouilly-Fumé for this but the same thing happens with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, South African Sauvignon Blanc and California Sauvignon Blanc,” Chartier added. “For the match it’s the grape, not the site.”
With Spring Valley Derby 2006, a big, bold style of Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington’s Walla Walla Valley, the steamed asparagus did not seem to affect the wine in the least. “We already have the link with pyrazine in the wine,” he said, “but we can make some stronger links by roasting the asparagus.”
We cooked the asparagus on a grill to brown it all over. But you can also just coat the asparagus in olive oil and roast it in a 375° F oven for 10 or 15 minutes, enough to cook it through. This creates what cooks call caramelization, aromatics that Chartier classified as “torrefaction,” similar to the roasting of coffee. Those elements link up with the smoky, toasty notes of oak in a wine, enhancing the match.
Darned it if didn’t work. Although the Cabernet wasn’t bad with the steamed asparagus, the vegetable seemed to amp up its tannins a bit. With the roasted asparagus, the tannins seemed less present and the wine turned silky. To test the theory further, I tried a sip of Shiraz. Its flavors did not resonate with the asparagus—not bad, but nothing special either.
“If you’re going to drink a Cabernet or Merlot with your meat, roast some asparagus to serve with it,” Chartier advised. Not only will it leave the wine unharmed, but it makes a friendly match.
These chemical connections led Chartier to another unexpected match. Realizing that pyrazines play a critical role in the flavor of chocolate, he wondered if he could add that to the mix. To test the theory he melted some high-cacao-content, not very sweet chocolate and mixed it with a bit of oil that had been warmed with Lapsang Soochong tea leaves for a few minutes to add a smoky note (along with more pyrazines, a component in tea). Then he dipped the roasted asparagus in the flavored chocolate, and set them aside to cool.
How, I wondered, could chocolate-coated asparagus taste good? But indeed it did. The pyrazines made the ingredients come together. Would it still taste good when consumed with the Cabernet Sauvignon? Skeptically, I took a tentative sip. The wine actually got richer and plusher, and its fruit came out strongly. Bingo!
I asked Chartier when in the course of a meal he would serve chocolate-covered asparagus with red wine. “Pre-dessert would be perfect,” he suggested. It makes sense; if you still have some red wine from the main course, you could finish it off with the chocolate-coated spears.
Adventurous wine bars could make them as bar snacks. It sure would be fun to see people’s faces when they discovered that chocolate-dipped asparagus actually made their wine taste better.