April 2012 - White, watery asparagus with white, watery Alsace Muscat : a perfect match ?

asparagus 

Springtime is back again, and in Alsace it means asparagus season. White asparagus are grown locally, and according to Alsace conventional wisdom, Alsace Muscat is a perfect match to these asparagus. Think twice however, before you open any muscat with any asparagus, as you may be disappointed. Here’s a detailed look beyond the traditional white, watery match.

There is a natural cultural match between asparagus and Alsace Muscat. Historically, asparagus came on the market in the middle of Spring, approximately at the same time when Alsace Muscat was bottled. Muscat was usually one of the first wines to be bottled in a winery, to keep its freshness and delicate flower aromas.  Muscat is a fragile grape, usually devoted to produce some light, aromatic, grassy, dry wine. Its peppermint flavors are particularly suited to match astringent dishes such as fennel or asparagus. But the grassier versions are also very nice on all kinds of fresh herbs dishes.

Big, white asparagus are watery, often tasteless, but eaten with home-made mayonnaise they provide a seasonal first course for many Alsatian families. Many restaurants are offering asparagus on their seasonal menu. Alsace Muscat is a recommended match because often it is watery, produced with high-yields, and harvested early “to preserve freshness” as producers say. Pairing watery asparagus with a watery white wine is nice, because this way we are sure that neither the wine nor the dish will dominate the pair. Typical watery muscat comes from last year’s vintage. 2011 was a great vintage for producing watery Muscat, because the yields were potentially high, and a cooled-down, quick fermenting process helped the wine get these typical English candy aromas, on top of some herbal flavors. Big, white, watery asparagus, as well as white watery Muscat, is what you will find most in Alsace. Hence the perfect (marketing) match. But what if you can’t find these ingredients? What if your muscat is ripe, or concentrated, or even mineral, or everything at once? It will kill your white, watery asparagus. Beware, 2010 and 2008 were low-yield vintages because the cold springtime destroyed most of the crop. And both 2009 and 2007 were very healthy vintages, which produced very ripe Muscat grapes. These wines may not be suited to match with white asparagus served with mayonnaise.

On the other hand, what if you can only get a hand on green asparagus, or if you eat your white asparagus with ham or something else? Their taste will surely kill your watery muscat. That’s where we open a new window of opportunities to pair great food with great wines. Forget about watery food and wine, let’s get serious about real food and wine pairing. Asparagus served with dried ham (Italian, Spanish) will be nice with a dense, fruity Muscat such as the ones produced in 2010 or 2008. If you like asparagus rolled into cooked ham and cooked with cheese like a gratin, you could even go for a full-bodied, mature Muscat from 2009, 2007 or 2005. And if you want to go even further in cooking, like adding green asparagus to a mushroom risotto, you may even find it interesting to go back to 2001 or older, provided that you select a nice terroir: we can talk about deep, mineral Muscats grown on the Bollenberg on Orschwihr, on the Rosenberg in Wettolsheim, on the Moenchberg in Rorschwihr, or on the Brandhof in Andlau.

As for the best dishes, we don’t talk about grape variety only, but we need the complexity of nice terroirs. One of the most delicate Alsace dish featuring asparagus is the famous pastry puff filled with green asparagus and fresh morels (“feuilleté d'asperges aux morilles fraîches”) from Marc Haeberlin, Chef at Michelin-Star L’Auberge de l’Ill restaurant in Illhausern. The sommelier Serge Dubs recommends a Riesling Vendange Tardive 1988 from Hugel, a perfect mineral wine produced on the marly-soil of the Grand Cru Schoenenbourg in Riquewihr. Probably a Muscat from the same terroir might have been a good choice, like the Muscat Réserve Exceptionnelle 1967 from Hugel,  produced at a time when the estate still produced Muscat on the Schoenenbourg. But that’s a different story…

Thierry Meyer