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Let's start with perhaps the simplest, but certainly the most important question: Which wine goes best with asparagus?
Janine Woltaire: It is not so easy to answer and this question arises every year anew. That's what makes it so exciting every year during the asparagus season. Asparagus comes so differently on the plate, it is an insanely exciting vegetable. When the asparagus is prepared differently, once fresh and light as a salad, for example, or rather stronger with hollandaise sauce or brown butter and steak, that changes the wine selection. I'm a big fan when the white wine doesn't offer quite so much acidity, which is why Burgundy grape varieties or quite classic Franconian Silvaner go well. Then the wine doesn't taste so bitter and metallic. The favorite German variety Riesling also goes well in doubt, most likely with Asian-inspired dishes.
What characteristics do the wines need to have?
Janine Woltaire: For white wine, as I said, I work with little acidity, at the same time wood or barrique wines are also good. Especially if you work with brown butter, have a caramel taste on the plate, it may be with pleasure a wood-finished white wine. Asparagus, in my eyes, no matter how it is prepared, is a very elegant vegetable. This should also be the description of the wine, i.e. not too alcohol-dominated, not too powerful, not too filling. It should just be in this elegant, finer range. It may be a bit more earthy or herb-heavy. If you think in the direction of schnitzel, with the crispy breading and the acidity of the lemon, the wine may already be present and have a lot of power.
At the same time, however, it must not be too woody, too much vanilla, or too kitschy. Classic cuvées that don't end up in the glass all year because they're so kitschy suddenly appear on the menu just because it says asparagus wine. That's not the right approach for me either. This very primary fruity, sweetish one-dimensional, which is then advertised as asparagus cuvée, is also nonsense.
**Does the wine list change during the asparagus season, or do you say that the wines that are available all year round are also suitable for asparagus?
Janine Woltaire: Yes, I think so. The wine list actually doesn't change for me. We are a restaurant that does not offer the classic asparagus dishes. Sebastian Frank includes asparagus in the menu every year, but there asparagus is then one course out of nine, so it's only a small part of the menu. At Sebastian's, the asparagus is classically pickled, that is, cooked with salt and sugar and grilled hot. This year it's going in a different direction, more as a pasta dish. Of course, the task of finding the right wine for this menu arises every year.
What goes better: a young wine from the previous year or rather one that has been stored for a while?
Janine Woltaire: That depends very much on how the asparagus is put on the plate. With a fresh asparagus salad or baked asparagus with yogurt dip, lighter dishes, you can get younger and fresher even in the glass. If there are more powerful, creamy flavors on the plate, I would rather recommend the more mature wines.
Are there differences between white and green asparagus?
Janine Woltaire: Green asparagus can be very well interpreted as Asian for me, in the direction of coriander and ginger. Then I am very happy with the fine-tart, German Riesling from the Mosel, a little lighter and sweeter, the acidity can absorb the spiciness of the ginger a little, the sweetness balance the whole. That's where this grape variety shines, I think.
Why is red wine not suitable with asparagus?
Janine Woltaire: Red wine has a lot more tannins, or tannins, which create that furry feeling. That can flatten a light asparagus dish. And white asparagus is obviously associated with light flavors, as in the classics hollandaise sauce or melted butter. And there's a red fruit and jammy, heavy wine to go with it, that just doesn't fit in the idea. But you can certainly combine red wine very well. There are light red wines, for example a Pinot Noir or very light and fruity red wine cuvées. Especially in summer, a bit more chilled than usual, a red wine goes well. Rather serve this at 14 degrees, rather than at room temperature. However, this is generally an outdated assumption with red wine. Red wine may be served with pleasure at 16-18 degrees and in the summer evenly still one or two degrees cooler. Then this can accompany very well also asparagus dishes with a little roast aromas, for example, directly from the grill in the garden.
How does it behave with the white wine with the cooling and the right temperature?
Janine Woltaire: Super question, with the white wine it is really exciting. It is often drunk very, very cold. A very crisp, fresh Sauvignon blanc, which is also a great grape variety for asparagus, can be served at six to eight degrees. This is also a great grape variety for asparagus, at least when it comes into the glass in its green, grassy-fresh variant from Styria, for example, and is combined with a fresh, green asparagus salad and spring herbs. But, for example, a powerful Burgundy, aged in wood, loses a lot of aromatics if it is too cold. I would go more in the direction of ten degrees. A distinction is made between serving and drinking temperature. I prefer to serve the wine one degree colder. But especially powerful, intense white wines lose a lot of aroma when they are drunk ice cold.
How much do guests value good advice? And is it even more important with asparagus?
Janine Woltaire: Yes, I would say so. But wine consulting is generally an exciting topic. I'm already seeing that it's being asked for and accepted more and more. We have a very special wine list in our restaurant. Sebastian Frank, with his origins on the Austrian-Hungarian border, shapes this certain culinary style. And we follow with the wines. We only serve wines from Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Hungary. Guests rarely know their way around there, although these regions are also becoming more and more relevant. In Berlin, it's another special situation, a little bubble. I always find our guests very open to new wine styles and have a desire to get to know something different and new. The guests depend on me for advice, and I always make a point of simply letting them taste the wine to get a feeling for whether it's the right one for the evening. That is gladly accepted, there is also demand for it, which makes me happy. It's great to get into a dialog and exchange ideas about wine, that's a nice moment. Of course, so is serving, but talking about it with the guests is great. Overall, my impression is that openness to quality and product understanding is becoming more and more important, and specialty stores are gaining more importance.
Do you have tips for guests to find a good wine in the restaurant?
Janine Woltaire: When looking at the wine list, it is important if the producer is noted. That's a sign that the restaurant values artisan wines. I would ask to taste when in doubt. Of course, it depends on the situation; a beer garden is certainly not the right place. I'd rather stick to my spritz drink and be happy. But in quality gastronomy, that's legitimate. I have to know whether I like the wine. It can go perfectly with asparagus, but if I don't like it, it's no good. And then simply seek out the conversation. There are now such great restaurateurs and sommeliers who can give competent advice. It's also good to acquire a little vocabulary. Do you like acidity? Do you like fruit? Do you like it more powerful? It helps me in my consulting when guests tell me a certain grape variety that they drink more often. If they say they always drink Pinot Grigio, I can already deduce what they feel comfortable with. Then you can try out something new, but that's where you'll find your way.
Do you get advice when you visit a restaurant or do you just choose the right wine from the wine list yourself?
Janine Woltaire: Both, to be honest. When I go somewhere, I also want to drink something I haven't had in a while. I insanely like to browse through the wine lists and pick something out. But I also love to be advised. Especially in wine regions where I don't know my way around. And if I haven't written the wine list myself and I don't open the wines myself every day and work with them, I trust my colleagues completely, so I ask them. I then describe what I'm looking for, for me it can also be a bit funky in the wine glass without it getting too wild. I then try to describe this balance, and so far that has always worked. If we then talk among "professionals", it is already very detailed, there you find faster the right wine. It then also goes into subtleties. Wines go through cycles, especially the older ones. Then you exchange information: 'Is the wine still in the closed phase, how do you perceive the wine at the moment? That's very technical, but a very exciting aspect.
When you are invited to friends' houses, do they ask you for recommendations?
Janine Woltaire: Yes, it happens, but it is difficult to advise. When you sit across from each other, you can talk about it in more detail. But a recommendation out of the blue, through a short Whats-App message, is of course difficult. What's the price range? Do you want it to be fresh and crisp and work on the terrace in the sun, or to accompany a particular dish? I can't just say Pinot Gris is right. You need a dialog, and then I'll be happy to advise you.
Janine Woltaire has been working at the Horváth Restaurant in Berlin since February 2019. Born in Hamburg, she came to the capital as a student. She had already worked in the restaurant business and financed her studies with it. A small, privately run start-up then really showed her the heart and soul behind it. That was the key moment for her to be drawn to gastronomy. For a year and a half, she attended the Sommelier School in Berlin, where she learned everything about wine while working. In 2021, she was named "Sommelière of the Year" by the trade magazines Feinschmecker and Gusto.
Janine Woltaire has been working at the Horváth Restaurant in Berlin since February 2019. Born in Hamburg, she came to the capital as a student. She had already worked in the restaurant business beforehand, which also helped her finance her studies. A small, privately run start-up then really showed her the heart and soul behind it. That was the key moment for her to be drawn to gastronomy. For a year and a half, she attended the Sommelier School in Berlin, where she learned everything about wine while working. In 2021, she was named "Sommelière of the Year" by the trade magazines Feinschmecker and Gusto.