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'Wine killers': artichokes, asparagus, pickles
2013-06-28
By John H. Isacs

WHEN informed that the iDEAL featured subject this week is pickles, I was somewhat timorous as pickles happen to be an exceeding challenging food to pair with wines. Impossible no, but certainly not easy. In fact, vegetables of various sorts are some of the most difficult food items to match with wines. Let's take a look at a few of the most egregious offenders.

Two of the most noble and distinctive vegetables in the world are asparagus and artichokes. These unique, flavorful and textured foods may be a food lover's delight but they're also far too often a wine lover's nightmare. I've heard wine connoisseurs refer to them as "psycho wine killers" and the devil's response to Jesus' first miracle of turning water into wine.

Trying to serve asparagus with wine is a daunting experience that has brought tears to more than a few chefs and wine lovers. Certain compounds in asparagus give this vegetable a grassy, somewhat sulfurous quality that clashes with wines. Asparagus also has a somewhat mysterious effect of making wines taste sweeter. Despite these obstacles, solutions do exist. Adding more wine-friendly ingredients such as mushrooms and Prosciutto ham works wonders in assuaging the wine-killing qualities of asparagus. Sauces are another good answer, especially wine-loving cream and cheese sauces.

No matter how your asparagus is served, the wines that pair best with this tricky vegetable are dry and acidic. Some good partners are young New Zealand or South African Sauvignon Blanc wines with some vegetal qualities and good acidity. French Muscadet, Italian Soave or Orvieto whites are also fine choices. Soaves of note include those made by Masi and Zonin, while a good value Orvieto is the Santa Cristina Compogrande Ovieto Classico.

When asparagus is served with meats, an acidic red with moderate tannins like an Italian Barbera of young Chianti also work well. Both these reds should be served slightly chilled. However, when savoring asparagus one should strictly avoid big oaky whites or tannic reds as they are certain to bring out the worst in each other.

Artichokes hostile to wine

If you're an adventurous type you can enjoy your asparagus with a wine actually made from asparagus. My sources inform me that asparagus wine is actually made in Michigan in the United States, but I must admit I cringe at the thought of drinking it.

Asparagus is a wine pairing challenge, but artichokes are even more difficult. The key culprit in making artichokes unfriendly to wines is a natural occurring acid called cynarin that alters the taste of wines. Cynarin makes wines taste sweet in a rather funky and disgusting way. The metallic qualities of artichoke also clash with many wines, leaving unpleasant slate-like sensations coating the palate.

However, like raising born enemies like cats and dogs together, there are ways to achieve harmony. The two best ways to bring peace between these natural antagonists is by choosing the most appropriate cooking method and secondary ingredients.

The most hostile artichokes to wines are those that are boiled. Grilling on the other hand significantly lessens the effects of cynarin. As French chefs discovered long ago, braising has a similar positive effect. Adding a palate coating fat like butter also makes artichokes far more wine-friendly. Artichokes prepared or served with bacon, garlic mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce or olive oil dressings are also better companions to wine.

As with asparagus, the best wines to pair with artichokes are always lively, very dry whites with ample acidity. Spanish Abarinos, young Chablis and unoaked Sauvignon Blancs do the trick nicely. No-dosage Champagne method sparkling wines or the driest Proseccos and CAVA sparklers also work remarkably well. Recommended Processco producers with wines you can find in Shanghai are made by Capene Malvolti Prosecco, Bisol and Vitocelli. Suitable CAVAs include Freixenet Negro Brut and Pere Ventura Primer Brut.

If you insist on boiled artichokes, then the only wines I know of that work well are Manzanilla and Fino Sherries. These dry Sherries also pair exceptionally well with grilled, braised and deep-fried artichokes. A quartet of top dry Sherries available here are Barbardillo Solear Manzanilla, Herederos de Argueso San Leon Manzanilla, Tio Pepe Palomino Fino and Lustau Solera Reserva Puerto Fino.

When trying to pair pickled foods with wine, you are, as we're fond of saying in colloquial English, literally in a pickle. The culprit, of course, is the pickling agent that is often acidic and sour tasting. In many cases the pickling agent may be vinegar or other acidic juice combined with pungent spices. Sometimes sugar will also be added to create sweet and sour sensations. All of these agents can be death to wines.

In Italy and Spain Prosecco and CAVA respectively are served with appetizers that often include pickles. The combination usually works if you choose the most dry Proseccos and CAVAs as the clean, simple and direct nature of these sparklers are neither overwhelmed nor compromised by pickled foods.

Both dry Rieslings and Albarinos, which may in fact be genetic cousins, also work nicely if well chilled.

The best wine to pair with pickles of many styles is a Manzanilla or Fino. Both styles of Sherry have the robust pungency to stand up to the most sour or intensely flavored pickles. The clean nature of these wines also acts as a mouth cleanser that literally reboots your palate leaving it desirous of another delicious chomp of pickle.

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