Sarah Knoefler oversees wine at a collection of San Francisco eateries under the Au Bon Repas Restaurant Group umbrella, that includes Café Claude, Gaspar Brasserie, Claudine and Gitane. As wine director, she's the boss behind the eateries' French and Spanish picks, with each wine list bearing a unique focus, be it Rhône varietals or sherry. Below, in anticipation of artichoke season, Knoefler addresses the tricky question of pairing the popular green vegetable with wine.
Q: Artichokes are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. Why is this and do you have any tips or advice on how to match these two foes?
Knoefler: Artichokes are generally considered difficult to pair, but there are actually a lot of wines that pair well with them. The challenge in pairing comes from a naturally occurring chemical in the artichokes called cynarin, which serves to make everything you taste seem sweet. When the wine meets the cynarin on your palate, it enhances any natural sweetness in the wine, making it taste not only too sweet, but flabby and boring.
... the key to pairing wine with any artichoke dish is to choose a wine that is bone dry, light and crisp, with high acidity and no oak.
So, the key to pairing wine with any artichoke dish is to choose a wine that is bone dry, light and crisp, with high acidity and no oak. I’m not usually opposed to oak on principle, but the cynarine will find the sweetness in the oak and just kill the wine on your palate. Then you want to look at the flavors in the artichoke, they’re herbal, green, a little bitter with a hint of chalkiness. I like to find wines with a similar flavor profile, this isn’t the place to look for contrasting flavors. One of my favorite wines to pair with any artichoke dish is a Basque varietal, Txakoli. It’s ever so slightly sparkling, very dry, with lots of tart green apple and mineral flavors. The effervescence helps with the pairing; it’s almost like the bubbles break up the reaction with the cynarine.
Admittedly Txakoli isn’t going to be on every list you find, but there are lots of other dry whites that will work with artichoke dishes. I like to think about how the artichokes are prepared to find the best wine to go with the whole dish. The hardest dishes to pair are simple steamed or boiled artichokes, because there isn’t really anything to interfere with the cynarine. A Sauvignon Blanc can work here, if it’s nice and dry, not too herbal, with some good citrus or green apple flavors. You have to be careful when you choose a Sauvignon Blanc for artichokes, since some can veer into the sweeter territory, and that’s the opposite of what we want.
For a raw artichoke salad, a more interesting pairing can be a Fino Sherry, which is always bone dry. The minerality and salinity pair well with the earthiness of the artichokes. A Sauvignon Blanc can work here, as well, especially if you have a citrus vinaigrette.
Artichokes get more fun when they’re prepared with more richness, either fried or braised in oil, or even if they’re served with a really rich hollandaise sauce. The fat interferes a little bit with the cynarin, and brings that richness to the dish, so the wines can get a little more rounded, a little fuller. A Verdelho, which is from Portugal, or an Italian Vermentino, which has nice acidity and a little bit of salinity, can go well with these dishes.
The bottom line is that artichokes and wine aren’t foes, just choose a wine that’s bone dry, with good acidity and no oak. From there, you can look for a specific pairing that works with the preparation, whether that’s pairing a lemon vinaigrette with a dry Sauvignon Blanc, or a fried artichoke with a Gruner Veltliner.