The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Pairing (not Paring) Spring Vegetables

How to get the most from your fiddleheads, ramps, or asparagus

fiddlehead fernsSpring and summer usher in a new batch of colorful vegetables, some of which throw a curve ball when pairing with wine. Now is the time to flex your creative muscles! It’s notoriously challenging to find proper wine matches for artichokes and asparagus; however, roasted root vegetables, stewed beans and earthy mushroom dishes lend themselves quite well to wine. From my experience, when in doubt pull out the bubbles, orange wine, sake or sherry.

I’m taking myself back to my days in culinary school, to offer these basic principles for creating great pairings:

Powerful flavors in food and richness call for powerful wines. Lighter food flavors require lighter wines. Spicy, salty, or smoky flavors in food welcome lighter, fruity reds, and off-dry to semi-sweet whites. You can pair food with wine by creating complementary pairings, where the food tastes like the wine (tomatoes with fresh herbs, olive oil, and olives paired with fresh, bright herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc). Or you can go the opposite direction with contrasting pairing where the food and the wine have opposite flavors and textures (for example, roasted asparagus with hollandaise paired with a vibrant sparkling wine).

Another consideration is how the dish is cooked. Roasting and caramelizing brings out the richer, sweeter flavors in vegetables. Steaming or sautéing can keep the flavors light and bright. Braising will bring out some of the deeper, more brooding and complex aspects of a vegetable or legume. Other components in a dish, from fresh herbs to spices, can also affect what you might pair with your vegetable of choice, so consider options at both ends of the light white to dark red wine spectrum.

Ok time to jump right in! Here are some tricky veggies with wine pairings that will almost always work together:

Artichokes: Artichokes are challenging because they contain a chemical acid called ‘cynarin’, which makes everything taste sweeter — especially the wine. To counter this I recommend serving a dry Fino sherry, smooth Soave from Italy, or a vibrant Txakoli from Spain.

Asparagus: A rustic vegetable that contains compounds like asparagusic acid, which, in case you were wondering, is an organosulfur carboxylic acid. Go for something citrusy, herbal and unoaked. For instance, you might choose a Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé from France’s Loire Valley; Grüner Veltliner from Austria; Alsace Riesling; Italian Sauvignon Blanc; or even unoaked Chardonnay, especially from a cooler region like Oregon’s Willamette Valley or Chablis from France.

Avocados: They are rich and sexy, and they work beautifully with voluptuously herbaceous, grassy and fruity whites, such as Torrontes from Argentina, Chardonnay from France or Italy, Albarino from Spain, or Moschofilero from Greece.

Mushrooms: Sure, there are a number of pairings here, but as far as a standouts go, you only need to remember two words and one wine: Pinot Noir. The earthy mushrooms and the fruit of the Pinot make for the “divine” contrast.

Nettles and Fiddlehead Ferns: These are some of the most highly sought after spring vegetables! These special veggies pair well with a soft, slightly fruity white like Pinot Gris from Oregon, Viognier from southern France, or Pinot Blanc from northern Italy.

Ramps: Make sure to avoid wines with a lot of oak/vanilla notes and wines that are super floral. You want a bright wine with green apple acidity and a hint of grassiness, arugula, or pepper to go with the bright, green, funk flavors in ramps. My picks are Friulano or Pinot Grigio from Friuli, Italy.

Olives: Because of the saltiness and briny flavors, Sake, Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, dry rosé from France, Italy or Spain and/or bubbles are the way to go.

The enjoyment of thoughtful wine and food pairing comes into play when you have special fresh market products on hand whose virtues you want to showcase and savor. That is the essence of the garden cook’s mission—to capture flavor at its peak. Why stop short of the beverage? By its very nature, no other liquid flatters the earth’s bounty better than vino, so cheers!

Spring Recipe: Tagliatelle ai gamberi e pachino con zucchine e punte d’Asparagi

Shrimp and Cherry Tomato Tagliatelle with Asparagus Tips and Zucchini


Finished dish

Spring is a most magnificent time of year. The milder weather and freshness of plants beginning to bloom stirs up that desire for a lighter lifestyle and a more delicate cuisine to match. Mediterranean dishes, in particular, are a very appropriate choice for this season, and one of my favorites amongst these is Tagliatelle with Shrimp and Tomatoes. Of the numerous variations of this classic, my favorite is this one, asparagus tips and zucchini (green squash).

I highly recommend all fresh vegetables and shrimp for this dish or it will not yield the desired results. The whole process takes about 40-45 minutes and serves 4 portions. And while easy to make, the timing is of utmost importance.


1 lb. Tagliatelle

16 oz. Cherry Tomatoes (or Grape Tomatoes)

1 Medium-Large Green Squash

1 lb. Asparagus

1 lb. Fresh Shrimp (cleaned, without tails)

1 Cup Fish Stock or Vegetable Stock

2 Garlic cloves

Fresh Parsley

Olive Oil




– Slice the cherry tomatoes into halves.

– Dice the green squash.

– Peel the garlic cloves.

– Cut the asparagus in half, discarding the bottom halves, and cut the tops into pieces about an inch long.

– Mince the parsley.

– Clean/rinse the shrimp if needed.

Once the prep work is done, pour enough olive oil into a large saucepan to cover the bottom surface of the pan and put it over a medium flame. Add the garlic cloves and let these brown in the oil, then add the cherry tomatoes.

(I prefer not to peel the tomatoes as those little bits of peel add a nice consistency to the dish, but feel free to peel them if you prefer.)

After adding the tomatoes, put a large pot of water on a high flame, adding 2 teaspoons of salt to the water and let that come to a boil.

Meanwhile, the tomatoes will start to simmer. Stir in the stock and cook it for about 20 minutes on a low flame, partially covered, until the tomatoes are soft and the peels start to separate from the pulp.

At this point, when the sauce starts to thicken a bit, add the asparagus and the squash and cook them in the sauce for about 5-7 minutes, stirring often. Then, add the shrimp to the sauce.

By this point, the water should be boiling, so throw the pasta in the water as soon as you’ve added the shrimp.

Typically, tagliatelle only take 3-5 minutes to cook, so you need to make sure the shrimp and the pasta start to cook at roughly the same time, otherwise your shrimp will be too chewy or your pasta will be too soft. The timing on the asparagus and green squash is also important as it will cook them through, but they will still be slightly crunchy.

Once the pasta is al dente, turn off the flame on both the water and the sauce. Strain the pasta and add it to the sauce.  Sprinkle minced parsley, salt and pepper to taste, then mix gently, but extensively, until the sauce and the pasta start to amalgamate. Then plate and serve!

Sauce in preparation

Sauce in preparation

I suggest pairing this dish with a nice white wine. Either of these two would go amazingly: Antinori Cervaro della Sala Chardonnay 2012 or Raffaele Palma Puntacroce 2011. Both wines present citrusy freshness, which makes them a perfect pairing for any fish dish and for squash, but both also have hints of salinity, which also lend themselves very well to complementing earthy vegetables such as asparagus.


The Simple Delights of a California Cab and a Porterhouse

An easy meal with huge pay-off

photoSome of the first wines I ever fell in love with were Cabernet Sauvignon blends from California. When these wines hold their fruit, structure, and alcohol in balance, they can be excellent. Four and a half years ago my love affair for Italian wines was enhanced by joining the IWM team, so truthfully I haven’t focused on Californian wines much as of late.

Recently my wife and I enjoyed a lovely visit from my in-laws. My father-in-law loves California Cabernets, and they gave us a gift of Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace from the 1997 vintage. What better way to celebrate than opening this bottle for a big Sunday night family dinner? It was a hit! We started the evening with extremely thinly sliced pieces of Jamon Iberico Pata Negra de Bellota along with 2 sheep’s milk cheeses. The main course was pa- seared porterhouse steak with roasted potatoes and sautéed asparagus. After decanting the wine for about 1.5 hours, the wine evolved nicely throughout the course of the meal. Red Rock Terrace refers to Diamond Creek’s seven-acre parcel of north-facing Cabernet Sauvignon vines in northern Napa. The wine was rich, balanced, and velvety in texture while displaying flavors of cherry, leather, and dusty tannins. With 12.5% alcohol, it’s all about balance.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any vintage Diamond Creek wines right now at IWM, but you can find this beautiful 2011 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow.

Recipe for porterhouse:

• Buy the best possible porterhouse steak at your local butcher.

• Sear each side for 90 seconds on an extremely hot pan

• Finish in 500-degree oven until you have an internal temperature of 125. Let the steaks “rest” in aluminum foil for 10 minutes, and they will naturally reach a perfect internal temperature of 130 to 135 degrees.

• To make the Beurre Noir sauce, deglaze the pan with half a bottle of neutral, red wine, making sure to get all the little burnt bits from the bottom. Add a chopped shallot and few sprigs of thyme and reduce by half over medium low heat while the steak are resting. Finish the sauce by taking off heat, straining, and whisking in 3-4 pats of cold butter. Serve immediately with slices of meat.

How Should You Toast Your Artichoke?

Tackling the thorny issue of drinking wine with artichokes

artichokes_bkgrdIt’s National Artichoke Heart Day. A member of the thistle family, artichokes are delicious, if sometimes prickly. I’m a big fan of their mealy, rubbery, fibrous texture, and their slightly sweet, herbaceous flesh that’s reminiscent of fennel. Rarely have I encountered an artichoke I haven’t enjoyed eating. I like them small and fried, big and steamed, chilled with hollandaise, hearted and pickled. I like them mashed into tapenade, stuffed with breadcrumbs, barbecued in the Spanish style, even turned into liqueur, as they are in Cynar, an aperitif made by Campari.

I love artichokes, but they are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. For one thing, artichokes contain cynarin, a compound that makes food taste sweet, and putting them with red wine makes the wine taste weirdly metallic. Like green beans and asparagus, artichokes can be the death of wines. But, as the adage goes, what grows together goes together, and, from Rome to Sicilia, artichokes are a mainstay of Italian cooking.

I turned the question over to IWM’s authorities to see how they handle the thorny issue of pairing artichokes and wines.

Francesco Vigorito:

Sardinia is big into artichokes, so maybe a Vermentio di Galura for white, or you could also go for a Punica if you’re looking for a red. If you do floured fried baby artichokes with a squeeze of lemon, then a sparkler to cut through the fry would be nice. Maybe something with a good fruitiness to it like the De Conciliis Selim—the slight sweetness in the wine should cut the artichoke quite nicely.

David Gwo:

​Veggies are tough to pair because bitter notes can be present and fruit-driven wines can accentuate that bitterness. Grüner Veltliner works well with vegetables and vegetarian dishes because the wines inherently possess “grassy” notes that blend with green veggies like artichokes. In addition, the wine’s minerality and cracked white pepper notes add an extra dimension of complexity to the pairing. Other options could include less fruit-driven rosés, but, typically, reds aren’t going to work and neither are very fruit-driven whites.

Crystal Edgar:

As a rule of thumb with wine and food pairings, the stronger the acid in the food, the more challenging the pairing. Vegetables like artichokes, asparagus spinach and other bitter greens are rather acidic but can be tamed by adding sweetness and/or richness, which helps to mute the acidity. Without going to sweet on the spectrum, I would recommend Pinot Gris from Alsace or Oregon, Friulano from Italy, Grüner Veltliner from Austria or another weighty white with some residual sweetness.

Garrett Kowalsky:

Pairing artichokes with wine is always a difficult task. Many times I opt for other beverages, but that is not always an option for my clients. My suggestion is to pick a high acid white with little to no oak. A bottle like that will be less likely to be thrown off by the strong flavors in the food. Think Sauvignon Blanc, or if you really prefer Chardonnay, then lean towards the wines from Chablis. Finally, don’t forget some of the delightful bottlings from Italy like Verdicchio and Vermentino.

John Camacho Vidal:

I have played around with different wines to pair with artichokes and have found that a very dry, high acid wine or a Fino Sherry with floral notes always does well. I’m also a big fan of orange wines, and I think they pair great with artichokes. I suggest clients they try their favorite artichoke dish with Gravner anfora white. Gravner’s oxidative quality mixed with the wine’s fruit will really bring the flavors together.

Emery Long:

Emery Long offers a recipe along with his wine pairing.

Artichokes are one of my favorite vegetables to prepare and serve. They provide a wonderful combination of savory, bitter, and earthy flavors. The tender artichoke heart is a delicacy as each plant only produces a few buds per plant and takes a full season to bring to fruition. One of the tragedies in cooking them are that most cooks discard most of the plant and keep only the tender heart, yielding only half of a serving—and the prickly spines hurt for days after piercing hands and fingers.

In an effort to utilize the entire vegetable and make the pain worth it, I find it very rewarding to save the trimmings and soak them in acidulated water, then put the trim through a food processor. Take the pulped artichokes and place them in a pressure cooker and submerge them in cool water, then cook for about 35-40 minutes to produce a delicate artichoke broth. Strain this broth, and poach the artichoke hearts delicately in this broth both to impart more flavor to the artichoke heart and re-enforce the broth.

Now to put the vegetable to use. I would begin by gently sweating a handful of sliced onions in a pan on low heat. Once the onions are translucent, add the poached reserved artichoke hearts to give them a bit of color. Then add the broth to the pan and gently bring down to a low heat being careful to not overcook the artichoke. In a separate pan sear a trout filet skin side up, add a whole clove of garlic and a hearty sprig of thyme to the pan. When the skin begins to crisp, minding the garlic not burning, add a small amount of butter to the pan to release the skin of the fish. Take the seared fish and put the crispy skin facing up and the flesh down in the pan with onions, artichoke hearts, and artichoke broth. Gently simmer the fish in the broth until fully cooked through.

Gently place the cooked artichoke hearts and onions in the bottom of a shallow bowl, rest the trout on top of the artichokes and gently spoon the delicious artichoke broth over the fish and garnish with a piece of crispy prosciutto and finely minced parsley.

I would pair this spring dish with the unique Villa Sparina 2013 Gavi di Gavi. This delicious Piemontese wine has a beautiful balance of bright acidity and floral aromatics. The minerality in the wine will complement the savory artichoke hearts; the acidity will meld with the flavor and aroma of the broth; and the accent of the crispy prosciutto will enhance the texture of the crispy trout skin and contrast the fresh and dry finish of the wine. Villa Sparina has been producing the Cortese grape for centuries and I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t frequently enjoyed with the regal artichoke.

A Look at Aglianico, a Great Big Grape

From value wines to collector gems, this southern Italian grape is one to drink

The vineyards at Mastroberardino

The vineyards at Mastroberardino

In my endless search to stay ahead of the curve and keep my culture sharp, I have developed a metropolitan-like manifest destiny for discovering things “before they were cool. ” Recently, I put that need aside and I introduced myself to the highly respected Aglianico grape, a varietal savored by cognoscenti who search for flavor coupled with austerity, authenticity, and range.

For centuries, the Aglianico grape has been the belle of southwestern Italy’s Campania and Basilicata regions. Basking in the southern Italian sun during the day and resting during its alpine cool evenings, this vine thrives at a slightly higher altitude in volcanic soil on steep slopes. It takes its time to mature but it produces a produce a small, thick-skinned grape with a beautiful midnight dark color. When assisted by other native varietals and ideal growing conditions, Aglianico’s tannins tend to soften, but it’s a grape that holds its own.

Often taking back seat to its more well known counterparts Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, this indigenous grape has a majesty all its own. A dark, inky grape that has a huge personality and little representation, Aglianico has charmed me with its brooding dark complexity, its thick layers of juicy tannins intermingling with dark forest fruits, and its charming yet enigmatic savor. As a single varietal, Aglianico takes on a gorgeous spectrum of fruit flavor; ripe lingonberry and blackberry make an appearance as they intermingle with fresh tobacco leaves, espresso grounds, and hard spices.

Vintage photo from Masterberardino

Vintage photo from Masterberardino

The incredible breadth of the Aglianico grape’s range of flavor and depth means that this wine needs food, and it pairs well with grilled boneless leg lamb and spicy pickled peprocini, or fresh spaghetti with spicy Luganica sausage. If you are a young bachelor like me, or just someone who appreciated fine sandwich cuisine, I would suggest that this raucous wine would go phenomenally with an Italian hero from your local delicatessen. While the masses are buying up expensive and rare wines of Italy’s North take a clue from me, this grape is the real McCoy.

Aglianico appears in a range of bottlings, from affordable bottles by Tormaresca and De Conciliis, to cult classics by Galardi, to vintage collector beauties by Mastroberardino. You owe it to your palate to experience Aglianico–even if it has been cool for a very, very long time.

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