Challenging Wine Pairing Scenarios

An exemplary Dry Riesling with a gorgeous nose

There are some questions that have no right answer. Like when a wife asks a husband, “Do you know what happened to the last cupcake in the fridge that I was saving?” Or “Did you notice my haircut?”

Believe it or not, I feel some of the same twinge in my stomach when people ask me about certain food and wine pairings.

There is the often-asked: “What goes best with asparagus?” That green, sometimes sweet vegetable that always has a bit of bitterness from all the chlorophyll is not the easiest food to pair with wine. The typical answer from a well- versed sommelier is Gruner Veltliner. But I must say that I am not convinced that it really is the best pair. The white Gruner has a similar vegetal or herbal character that could tie in asparagus’s aromatics. On the palate, however, it also can have a mix of greenness, herbal and even a white peppery spiciness (especially when grown on loess or sandy soils) that I am not very fond of when pairing with asparagus. Gruner, in most cases, also has an intrinsic bitterness that can be exacerbated when paired with another bitter element.

For me, the best wine to go with asparagus is a clean, light and non-herbal white that has absolutely no bitterness, wood or tan- nin. That ideal is exemplified by Riesling, but some don’t care for Riesling’s sweetness. Lucky for them, Riesling also is made dry, or Trocken. I would stay away from higher Pradikat Trocken wines like Auslese or Spatlese, as those can get heavy and perhaps a bit dense. My recommendation would be 2010 Lietz Eins Zwei Dry Riesling ($14). This is exemplary, with a gorgeous nose of peaches and nectarines; fruity in the nose but dry on the palate with absolutely no bitterness.

Photos from Roberto Viernes

Another impossible yet common scenario is when multiple people on a single table are having multiple courses of food that transition from seafood and fish to red meats, but they insist on having only one wine. This happens a lot at banquets, larger parties and even with just a couple having dinner. Perhaps the lady is having fish and the gentleman is having a steak. It is always a quandary. I always try to find their preferences first. Regardless if it is white or red, dry or sweet, I try to find some common ground on their palates. But, in my experience, the best wine for these “tweener” pairings is Pinot Noir. You’re prob- ably thinking that I only say this because it is my favorite varietal. This is true, but it is also one of only a few red wines that will “play nicely” with fish. It doesn’t have as much tannin or oak, typically, as Cabernet or Merlot. In fact, it is a terrific pair with salmon in general. The best examples also have enough earthiness and tannin to not get completely taken over by red meats, including lamb. One example of this yin and yang of elegance and richness is the 2008 Au Bon Climat Isabelle Pinot Noir ($48). This is its current release, and it has two more years in bottle than almost anything else on the market. It translates into a plethora of sweet, red aromatics along with sandalwood spices. In the mouth, it is more velvet than silk and has more body than most would expect. The waves of complex flavors keep coming.

Now that you are better armed at a couple of tricky food and wine pairings, you should work on making sure you know the dates of your spouse’s birthday and anniversary. You don’t want to be caught like a deer in headlights when they ask, “Do you know what today is?”

Addendum to “The History of Wine in the Islands”: I love my readers, and I am thankful that one of them, Ian Birnie, pointed out the following facts to me regarding wine and liquor in Hawaii.

It has been documented that Hawaiians made – and drank – okolehau, from the ti (ki) plant, before the arrival of the missionaries.

Johannes Leitz in front of one of his amazingly steep vineyards in the Rheingau

Certainly whalers brought rum to the Islands, but it’s doubtful that the earliest missionaries brought wine with them, or “the sacrament of wine,” as they were puritan Congregationalists who were opposed to alcoholism and sought to influence Ka’ahumanu to outlaw liquor.

Catholic and Episcopal missionaries who would have used the sacrament of wine arrived some years later. And the Spaniard Don Francisco de Paula Marin reported in his journal that he “pulled off” 38 gallons of wine in July 1815, five years before the first missionaries arrived. While that was said to be his first batch of wine, he had been making brandy before that. Honolulu’s Vineyard Boulevard is named for the road that led to Marin’s vineyard.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. Email or follow him on Twitter @Pinotpusher.