THE ODD COUPLE: Asparagus is notoriously difficult to pair with wine—but that only makes the combo sweeter when it works.
Iron and Wine
Helpful rules of thumb for pairing winter vegetables with tasty vintages
By Christina Waters
MOST VEGETABLES, left to their own devices, won't slide easily into a flavor partnership with wine. That's because flora in general, and green veggies in particular, bring their own herbal, grassy, sometimes even metallic bitter tones to the table. Wines, on the other hand, love to partner with flavors that offer fruit, meatiness, butter, olive oil—in other words, rich, strong, earthy attitudes. Vegetables are known for other, well, virtues. And that means, as many chefs know all too well, that it can be challenging to make a wine-friendly dish of Brussels sprouts.
Worst offenders? Artichokes, asparagus and arugula. The A-list wreaks havoc with most wines. They fight with your basic sangiovese or cab as much as the mother of difficult seasonings, cilantro. One strategy is to pump up the preparation. Roasting veggies with garlic and olive oil, for example, will help to intensify their essential earthiness. Or enhance them with sauces that add some fruit or cream to the experience. If you prepare vegetables in a way that accentuates their richness—for example, by grilling– they will work much better with wines, especially red wines that have been sculpted by aging in oak.
In general, the rule seems to be either to work with the prevailing flavor—earthy with earthy, tart with tart—or play against it. Pair a spicy, fruity wine such as a pinot noir with spicy cooking styles and a dry, mineral-laden riesling with a cucumber salad. Or do contrast matching—sweet roasted carrots with a tartly perfumed albarińo, or a sweet sauternes with salty anchovies, marcona almonds or—an obvious match—a pungent Camembert.
If you like the idea of accentuating the inherent flavors of certain vegetables, then experiment with wines that resonate along with them. Minerally, dry whites bring out the delightfully eccentric mineral quality of asparagus, or even fennel. High-acid items, for example tomatoes, might go well with a crisp sauvignon blanc. Mushroom sauces or mushroom lasagnes are brilliant with a well-made, earthy pinot noir.
The biggest problem is in trying to match a vegetable that has been brought to the table with very little tinkering, such as a beautiful organic vegetable that has been very simply steamed. There is an answer.
Listen carefully. There are a few (very few) omni-versatile wine partners in this world. And one of them is champagne. There isn't a fish, fowl, cheese, meat, vegetable or herb that can't acquire added sex appeal in partnership with dry, chilled champagne. Nothing in the bubbly requires an answering response or a particular flavor note in the food item. Just like cheese, the bubbly stands alone. And any food becomes a special event when joined by a frosted flute of sparkling wine. So you'd be wise to always, always keep a bottle of some favorite champagne in the coldest spot of your fridge.
The other oenological rescue remedy is a charming, low-alcohol varietal from Austria—grüner veltliner. Light, minerally, citrusy and very low in alcohol, grüner veltliner hugs tight to whatever the vegetable wants to do. No argument, no dominant interfering qualities. It will even get along with cilantro. But don't just take my word for it.
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