Asparagus Meets Sauvignon Blanc

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Every spring, I eagerly anticipate the new, fat shoots of asparagus, displayed extravagantly on our local farm stands.

But for a wine lover like me, this vegetable presents a grave challenge: what wine will match or override the singular and persistently acrid flavor of asparagus?

Although not everyone has the olfactory receptors to smell them, there are volatile sulfur-containing asparagusic acids found only in asparagus. Knowing that these aromatics are sulfurous compounds provides a clue to what wines will best accompany asparagus.

Its kissin’ cousin may well be sauvignon blanc, a grape variety whose very name (roughly translated as “savage vine”) hints at something untamed. Technically, these sulfurous molecules are methoxypyrazines (MPs), which are more prominent in sauvignon blanc than in other grape varieties.

MPs range from herbaceous to faintly sweet; they are usually described as smelling like green beans, bell peppers, dill, or asparagus. Sulfurous MPs correlate most with overall ripeness; in cool climate regions like New Zealand, MPs are so potent that they are described as “cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush.”

The Kiwis have taken this attribute and made it a virtue. In fact, there is even a brand of that name (known in the U.S., due to our humorless labeling laws, as “Cat’s Phee on a Gooseberry Bush”).

The amount of MPs in wine varies depending on yield, sunlight on the vine, and various winemaking manipulations. Crop reduction before veraison decreases it, as does leaf-pulling in the fruit zone. Winemakers can keep MPs in the forefront by pressing under inert gas to protect the aromas from oxidation, or hide them via fermentation in new or old barrels, depending on whether the flavors of oak, or just those of yeast, are desired.

Sauvignon blanc is a grape that, once found primarily in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, is now grown in every part of the world. Your choice will depend on how much you favor a reductive, under-ripe style that emphasizes pumped up pyrazines (with aromas like green beans or bell peppers) and grapefruit-dill-citrus flavors, or one that suppresses the more vegetal aspects, favoring flavors akin to passion fruit, melon, honeysuckle or litchi.

Although every wine is a product of climate, soils, or “terroir,” grape growers and wine makers have, in the past decade, learned to intervene in several ways to style sauvignon blanc according to their personal preference, or that of their customers.

On the light side, dancing with freshness; showing enough herbaceous character to mark it as true sauvignon, but nuanced with hints of pineapple and lime, are the sauvignons made here on Long Island. A leading producer, with vines planted in 1983, is Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue.

Owned by the Massoud family, this small producer moderates MPs by removing leaves in the leaf zone, thus exposing fruit to MP-destroying sunlight. With controlled yields of about 2.5 tons per acre, they hand-pick and sort the fruit, pressing whole clusters without crushing them. Fermentation is in stainless steel; it’s cool, but not cold, at about 65 degrees, to preserve the fruity aromas.

Another local favorite of mine is Mattituck-based Macari Vineyards. Its zesty Sauvignon Blanc, which glitters in the glass, shows a depth of purity that reflects producer Joe Macari’s efforts to nurture his soils via biodynamic methods that foster biologically active loam.

From the Loire Valley, La Petite Perrière Sauvignon Blanc 2011 is a true “value” wine by a fine producer of Sancerre, Guy Saget. At the low end of a full array of yummy sauvignons, it shows remarkable quality with aromas at the ripe peach and melon end of the spectrum, rather than flint-granite-grapefruit. Still, it captures some of the fresh sea breeze of the Loire coast.

Sauvignons from New Zealand also benefit from a maritime climate, which accentuates natural acidity. More remarkably, the ultra-violet radiation there is literally off the charts (on a scale of 0 to 10, it goes to 13). This creates intense aromas—high in MPs—which are preserved by the chilly air.

One of my favorite NZ sauvignons comes from Kiwi pioneer Goldwater Vineyards. It’s a well-mannered sauvignon blanc, less aggressive than many, showing its pedigree with aromas of lime, passion fruit and a touch of dill. Napa’s sauvignon blancs are full-bodied, buxom wines. Robert Mondavi invented the term “fume blanc” to distinguish his dry SB from the run-of-the-mill sweet sauvignons of the ’70s, and the best California SBs follow his model for a smoky, nuanced wine—still a good foil for asparagus.

Please pass the hollandaise!

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