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.