If, like me, you gauge the seasons by weekly farmers market visits, you notice that even in the famously temperate San Francisco, one is less subtle than the others: spring. Throughout the winter, my wife and I stroll through Ferry Plaza, rain or fog, scooping up our beloved bitter greens and bright citrus, unencumbered by fairer weather shoppers.
Come spring, however, the place explodes. Shoppers rouse themselves from hibernation in search of the season’s first artichokes, asparagus, fava beans, and peas, not to mention early strawberries. All the better to pair with local salmon and spring lamb.
And yet infamously tricky to pair with my favorite libation: wine.
Whatever spring delights you’re cooking up this week, I have a few ideas on how to best pair them with wines. Yes, even those tricky artichokes and asparagus.
There’s a lot of mediocre salmon out there, lacking in both flavor and color, the majority of it from questionable sources. But the local wild salmon season is about to kick in; we’ll have roughly six months—May to October—to savor the real thing: rosy, wild-caught Pacific salmon.
Since spring is also the season of fresh rosé releases, one might be tempted to drink pink wine with pink fish. The instinct here is not off, but neither is it a slam-dunk. A plop and glug rosé might quench the thirst on a toasty day, but salmon’s red flesh and fatty nature require a more “serious” rosé, meaning one whose profile leans more savory than fruity, more mineral than soft in texture. Here think cooler climates, from the Sierra foothills to the Alps, Burgundy to the Amalfi coast.
A similar approach guides my usual go-to-choice with salmon, which is lighter reds. By lighter I mean in color, weight, and alcohol. No 15% Zins or Cabs. Think airier Pinot Noirs, Gamays, or even some of the lighter, somewhat more obscure Italian grapes such as Pelaverga, Freisa, and Schiava, which bring lovely, crunchy berry, as well as savory notes to the table. Serve with a noticeable chill, but not cold.
Young lamb is another spring delight, and here my mind leaps towards wines such as Northern Rhône Syrah. At their best, these bottles offer a profile of purple fruit, violet, flint, and pepper—the perfect counterpart to lamb’s rich, slightly gamy nature. Depending on the appellation, they can range from dark and dense to lithe and high-toned, but somehow always seem to match well with the lamb. Here, Cabernet and Zinfandel lovers can also be made happy (as long as they stick with less fruit-forward versions), as well as those who love a good Nebbiolo or Sangiovese. I advise steering clear of the lighter varieties enjoyed with salmon.
I’ve delayed the hard choices for last, specifically the artichokes and asparagus, with flavor profiles that don’t exactly make a wine lover’s heart leap with anticipation. My solution: the addition of fat and a nice slow-braise to make these vegetables not only delicious but also more palatable with wine.
A staple in our house is from Marcella Hazan’s Marcella Cucina, “Roman Spring Vegetable Casserole.” It calls for artichokes, peas, favas, and romaine lettuce; we add asparagus. After braising for two hours, you end up with an army-green vegetable mush—it looks horrible but tastes heaven-sent.
Yet however you prepare spring greens, a few simple wine principles will help you find the best match. First, avoid oaked whites. The presence of wood, no matter how subtle, brings a weight and texture that clashes with the acidity, forest, and herbaceous notes of these foods. On the flip side, a super-acidic white—say, a steely Chenin Blanc, Riesling, or Sauvignon Blanc—will only serve to magnify the harsher aspects of these vegetables.
The trick is to thread the needle between the two. The choices are narrow, but if you go with unoaked Chardonnays, or some of the whites from the Amalfi coast (Fiano, Falanghina), or farther north, from Liguria (Vermentino, Pigato), you should discover whites that stop fighting these foods. Although these whites are all different, their combination of purity, medium-body, and slightly saline natures play beautifully with the vegetables and eeks out just a bit more of what we love about them: their earthy herbaceousness.
Sip, bite, savor: spring is here, at last.
Illustrations: Kristin Rieke Morabito