The flavors of asparagus and artichoke are numerous and unique-- green, grassy, earthy, slightly sweet and bitter with a pleasant crunch. You'd think these foods would be a dream for the wine lover and gastronome! Sadly, these are actually two of the most difficult foods in the entire culinary world to pair with wine. Though their inherent flavors may be complimented by any number of wines (depending on the preparation) there is a certain something in asparagus and artichoke that somehow turns even the finest wine to plonk.
That certain something is the chemical compound cynarin -- or 1,4-bis[[(E)-3-(3,4-dihydroxyphenyl)prop-2-enoyl]oxy]-3,5-dihydroxy-cyclohexane-1-carboxylic acid for you chemists out there -- an organic compound found in great abundance in these two vegetables. On the bright side, it is suspected that this compound may actually slow the liver's production of LDL, or 'Bad' Cholesterol. Unfortunately for the wine lover, this compound also makes wine and other beverages taste a good deal sweeter than they actually are. This is perfectly fine if you are drinking, say, water -- in fact, it's even kind of pleasant. With wine, however, other elements come into play and most wines come out of the situation tasting of aluminum siding and iron shavings. This phenomenon is both colorblind and inattentive to quality -- be it Charles Shaw Chardonnay or Chateau Lafite, the result is almost always the same -- the invigorating flavor of tin foil. Yum!
Fortunately, there are a few wines that are seemingly immune to this reaction.
In my experience the white wines of Alto Adige have been the best of the best. This northernmost region of Italy produces some of the finest Pinot Grigios, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers, Pinot Biancos and Sauvignon Blancs in the whole country. Thanks to the region's stony/chalky soil, cool climate and high altitude the whites are dry, full-bodied, high acid and very mineralic. Bold fruit and lush texture take a back seat here to more bracing and rocky qualities. Cantina Terlano makes an outstanding line of whites and reds including the finest Pinot Grigio that I've had the fortune to come across under $25. Nals Margreid is another fine producer who has a few pretty well priced and widely available whites in the $15 range.
If you are eating your cynarin heavy meal out and can't find a wine from Alto Adige on the list there are a few basic rules you should follow. First, see if you can pick the wine with the highest mineral content -- being that that is what your wine is going to taste like anyhow, its best to have one that has been made to that end (this may indeed be why the northern Italian whites take so well to these foods). These wines include but are not limited to Alsace Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, Sancerre, Anjou, and some Oregonian Pinot Gris. High acid is also a plus, and avoid oaky Chardonnay like the plague -- the sweetening effect of the cynarin picks up on oak to a cloying degree. Also, I'd say avoid reds, unless the main course is so rich or so spiced as to conflict with a full-bodied white. In that case, a red Sancerre, certain Burgundies, or any high acid, high mineral, less fruit-driven Pinot Noir would be your safest compromise. Finally, do not hesitate to ask the sommelier for his opinion -- if he is working in a restaurant that regularly serves artichoke or asparagus then he almost certainly has something up his sleeve.