Food & Wine – Asparagus galore

We are nearing the end of the growing season of one of my favorite vegetables: white asparagus. I grew up in a town that has in recent years styled itself as Belgium’s hub, and rightly so. Kinrooi is one of the biggest producer of white asparagus, and unlike the big, fat stems that are more about volume, here they are properly treated as a foodie’s treasure. Even though I have lived in Brussels for the past couple of years, I would never dream of buying my asparagus anywhere else, and it is always a great way to welcome Spring. What better way to now end the season than with two Belgian classics?

Winewise, the literature is not a fan. Too herbaceous is an often-heard argument, but more importantly is the impact that it has on your palate, as the asparagusic acid it contains can make a wine taste lean and metallic. Overly fruity wines or sweet wines are therefore considered a no-go, but there are of course loads of wines that do prove to be up to the challenge. My go-to country would be Germany, where asparagus is also a true classic on the menu, but today we broaden our horizons.

Let’s start with a dish that my mom used to make to inaugurate the new season: asparagus à la flamande. Deceptively simple but simply delicious with only a couple of extra ingredients: parsley, eggs, a bit of nutmeg and high-quality butter. How did the following wines fare?

IMG_5263First up, the German selection may be familiar with those who have been following my writing since the beginning: Am Stein’s Innere Leiste Silvaner 2012. It just goes to show that I don’t just write about the wines I like, I actually tuck them away in my cellar as well! Silvaner seems to be a good match with asparagus as it also has an herby, spicier side. It is more pungent on the nose than I remember, but on the palate, it has a nice, mineral intensity to it. It has clearly benefited from a bit of bottle time, and I think that it can still develop wonderfully for the next couple of years. The combination shines in its completeness; preserving an herbaceous balance against the parsley and asparagus, yet retaining a sense of gras to match the butter. A great wine in its own right, lifted to a higher level when paired with the right dish.

Staying within the minerality theme, a South African chenin blanc: Mullineux’s Kloof Street chenin blanc 2015. I had not tasted the bottle before and bought it solely based on the producer’s reputation. It comes across a bit austere with a flinty, reduced nose on the first day. There is a bit more fruit afterwards but overall it is rather muted. Soft on the palate, and nothing that really stands out. Unfortunately, it did not stand a chance against the eggs and butter; the slight astringency that was already present as an afterthought was suddenly much more noticeable, so let’s just chalk it up as a learning experience!

Finally, the most surprising match: Giovanni Almondo’s Roero Arneis ‘Bricco delle Ciliegi’ 2013. The bottle was chosen completely at random from the cellar, as I remember it being quite tight and mineral in flavor, so I was hoping it would work. It wasn’t until basically just now that I found out that the terroir of Roero is also ideally suited for asparagus! Perhaps the most subtle wine when it comes to the aroma, but very nice. Mostly on spring flowers, a bit leafy and a freshness that also dominates the palate. The tightness is still there, but there is a lovely tension that actually goes really well with the dish, a great discovery.

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While asparagus a la flamande is in essence an easy dish that can uplift an average weekday, the next meal is something that requires a bit more work: Slip soles with fresh North Sea shrimps and asparagus with a white beer mousseline sauce. Granted, shrimps are hideously expensive these days, but combined with a couple of perfect slip soles as well as a velvety mousseline, they are just irresistible. It is a richer dish, so we would need a wine that can handle a bit of pressure.

I looked for something that could match the mousseline first, so something with a bit of structure, perhaps a hint of butter, yet something mineral as well, as the delicate flavours of the shrimps could easily be overwhelmed otherwise. Finally, there are the asparagus, which would only pick a fight if a wine had the audacity to show fruit. So round yet minerality and a more muted yet intense character led me to the Jura, to what it perhaps my best Chardonnay discovery of the year: Domaine Pignier’s A La Percenette 2014.

I haphazardly discovered this estate when I was served a deceptively basic Cremant de Jura in a restaurant a couple of years ago. I was stunned by what I found in my glass, a wine with a complexity that surpasses like half the offer of Champagne at this price point. I jotted down the estate’s name, but of course I lost the note and forgot about it. When I encountered the winemaker at la Renaissance two years ago, I had the opportunity to taste a couple of other wines, which were so convincing that I bought a selection of their wines to taste at home.

Pignier is one of the oldest estates in the Jura, with the seventh generation currently at the helm. The wines are the epitome of slowness; taking the time to allow the wines to find their own natural balance, giving them the opportunity to literally prepare for the ages, as the estate confidently states that their wines can easily go for 10 to 20 years. A la Percenette is a wine of crystalline precision; not something that you notice at first but that sneaks up to you and captivates your attention. It is a lively, yet calm wine, with a depth that goes fantastic with the mousseline sauce, and a freshness that really complements the herbiness of the asparagus and the salinity of the shrimp. A match made in heaven.

 

Food & wine – butternut squash risotto

Something new! As mentioned in my previous post, there are a couple of changes upcoming, one of them being more attention being paid to matching food with wine. Those sommelier studies have to count for something, right? First up, risotto vs. Chardonnay!

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Spring is upon us, which means that it is time to say goodbye to my favorite squash, the butternut pumpkin. Nutty in flavor with a dash of sweetness and a smooth, wintery structure, I find it irresistible when looking for comfort food. It is the perfect base for a fantastic risotto; hearty, heavy enough to make you regret the last bite yet not so heavy as to make you feel too guilty about it.

In all honesty, I only discovered the joy of a good pumpkin risotto a couple of years ago thanks to one of the pioneers on Belgium’s wine blog scene, Chateau Sans Pretention. The amount of articles written by Erik is astonishing and even though he no longer writes, I still check back from time to time for tips and pointers on what there is to discover in the world of wine. The blog however, pales in comparison to the Vinopedia, which is a simply monumental database that could give the likes of Larousse a run for their money. Anyway, it was this article on matching pumpkin risotto with wine that inspired me to try it myself. I made just a few changes: no mascarpone and crunchy speck to add a bit of textural fun. The core of the dish, spicy, oven-roasted squash, stays the same.

The classic, conservative match is (young) oaked chardonnay. The aromas derived from the barrel ageing blend in nicely with the spices used, but more importantly, the creamy texture of oaked chardonnay is perfectly complementary with the richness of a risotto. You do not want to go turbo-oaked, nothing that has been vinified in 100% new oak or that has been in the hands of a batonnage-addict (the process of stirring the lees, the dead yeasts that have settled on the bottom of the barrel, to give the wine more structure). As always, freshness and elegance will prove to be key for a good match.

IMG_4791To spice things up, I looked for two similar but different wines. First up, Maison Verget’s Terroir de Vergisson de la Roche 2012. I am a big fan of what Jean-Marie Guffens can do with the great terroirs of the Maconnais, balancing an energetic minerality without losing the depth and structure that Burgundy can do so well. Fermentation in oak, 15% new, and regular batonnage over the course of six months. Wine two is Calera’s Central Coast Chardonnay 2013. Interesting American wines are still a rare find in Belgium sadly enough, so the best option is to fall back on the classics. What Josh Jensen produces is fantastic, decidedly New World climate in exuberance, yet so completely in balance thanks to a crazy attention to details. Fermentation in oak as well, 10% new, very little batonnage over the course of ten months.

So, same variety, similar in vinification but completely different wines of course. Calera proved to be the best match. Juicy fruit and a quite distinctive toastiness. This was definitely no cool climate wine, yet the palate had freshness, the barrel ageing playing more on aromas rather than texture. Verget was maybe more complex on its own, more nuanced in the nose and focus, linearity on the palate. It was a bit too muted to counter the richness of the risotto, and I think it would have been more suited for a lighter dish.

Of course, this is a pairing that I thought about throughout the day, juggling different options for the risotto and the wine pairing (it keeps you hungry throughout work, but the day goes by just a little faster). If I had used different herbs, sage for instance, I wouldn’t have matched it with the chardonnay as the herbalness would have clashed with what was in the glass. Surprisingly, I have been able to match the sage-version quite well with a randomly picked bottle of Julien Sunier’s Fleurie in the past, as you get a pungency that does go well with the intensity of the dish. It just goes to show that there is always a fair deal of luck involved in a wine match!

A reflection on white Burgundy

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been breaking my head about what I can write on Burgundy. All the years that I have been drinking Burgundian wines in a less structured manner, as well as a four-day visit do not exactly entitle me to an informed opinion. At the same time a first visit allowed me to confirm or reject thoughts and assumptions that had been turning in my head for a while. Continue reading

Biodynamic conversion in practice – Francis Boulard

Biodynamic or natural viticulture is a challenge in the Champagne. In my first post on the topic I mentioned that the focus with most growers lies on securing yield, ensuring that nothing happens endangers the amount of grapes you get at harvest. As most growers are dependent on either the grands marques or the cooperatives, you can imagine the impact of the loss of a crop on their finances. Continue reading

Terroir geekery at Laherte Frères

Success in the Champagne is dependent on different factors. The Grands Marques have the luxury of being able to source their still wines from the entire region and have as such a large supply source, enabling them to create consistent and balanced champagnes over the years. Vignerons who are lucky enough to own land in villages with Grand Cru status can have it easier than others as the labelling alone will often allow them to command a premium price. Continue reading