Banishing the Myth of the Wine-Killer

Asparagus and artichokes ain’t off limits.

  Enjoying wine seems like such a daunting task sometimes, especially when you're faced with having to know what goes with what, or with other obstacles to enjoyment, like a pushy sommelier. I was told twice last week to change my wine choice because it would not go with my dish, and not in a well-mannered way. One waiter went so far as to make an "eww" face when I chose a cab franc with my artichoke starter, further illuminating me by going into great I-just-bought-a-new-wine-book detail of how the dish would clash with my wine. I appreciate someone trying to maximize my eating experience, but who likes to be explained "the rules" of wine while out with friends? Good for Skippy Sommelier that he had read that artichokes and my choice of red don't get along, but he should have kept it to himself. So I thought I'd nip a scourge in the bud and talk about two coveted spring vegetables that sommeliers love to hate: asparagus and artichokes. Wine pros like to come out with sentences such as "If you simply must drink wine with artichokes..." Some even condemn these vegetables as "wine-killers," even though millions of Italians are able to drink wine with artichokes and asparagus, enjoy it, and think little of it. In general, you do want to be aware of the pungent, sharp bounty of spring, but not for your wine's sake—the sommeliers have it back-assward. It's wine that can ruin these glorious tastes of spring. A natural compound in the artichoke called cynarin (hence the name of Cynar, the artichoke liqueur) causes most people who eat artichokes to temporarily taste things, including wine, as sweeter than they are. One could just as easily say that the oak in a chardonnay bludgeons the meat of the artichoke, or that the tannin of a rich red ruins the giant thistle's natural flavor. Besides, is it really such a bad thing that a wine may taste sweeter in the presence of this glorious giant thistle and a bowl of melted butter? If only someone could harvest the power of said chemical and inject it straight into the limbic system. However, for a select few, cynarin makes everything taste more bitter. Ah, it is a metaphor for life, no? Asparagus is another story, as the best features of the little stalky wonders are exactly what most wines dislike. Eating a blanched stalk of asparagus is to understand the adjective vegetal, and that flavor isn't the first partner you think of for a big fruity wine. A big red, for instance, will totally drown out the just-picked flavor of in-season asparagus. Asparagus also has a sulfur compound that can make some wines taste off, as if they were poured out of a tin can or a vat of green peppers. Do you want to bust out a bottle of special red when asparagus soup is on the menu? Maybe not, but you could engage a zesty white in peace talks and call it a day. Now you know why some wine folk say these vegetables and most wines don't get along, but there is a particular style of wine that not only stands up to these two green vegetables but also makes them shine. Sauvignon blanc is a great problem-solver, because wines from this grape have strong acidic and citrus notes. These whites can take the little sweetening-up from the artichoke and the greening of asparagus. Sauvignon blancs from cooler climates make perfect partners for all spring veggies from the farmers market. In particular, the ones from South Africa champion our local A-list veggies. These wines from the Cape have it all—in particular, a bright fruit that's not too acerbic nor too sweet. In these wines I always smell hints of refreshing herbal tea or the puff of lime zest, and without fail they possess the perfect amount of acidity. South African labels such as Neil Ellis' "Sincerely" wine are fresh, elegant, and amazingly affordable, and the sauvignon blanc from Porcupine Ridge is downright invigorating; both retail for around $10. Fairview makes another very affordable sauvignon blanc that makes it so easy—so tasty—being green. And on the charge of attempted murder, they exonerate our beloved spring asparagi and artichokes.

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