I was in Baden-Wurttemburg, Germany. It was weisser spargel season, and every meal was a play on the German fetish-veggie sometimes known as “edible ivory.” White asparagus soup. White asparagus sautéed in butter. Steamed, roasted, served chilled with vinaigrette or warm with pork and potatoes. Entire meals were beige in homage to the stuff. If you have ever tried to pair a wine with asparagus, you know it’s not a joking matter-the bizarre aromatics of asparagus throw a middle finger to most wines long before you get to its other… aromatic issues. White asparagus, covered in mulch and sequestered from sunlight, develops no chlorophyll and has a milder flavor than its green counterpart, but it’s still asparagus.
So I was enjoying my spargel-zuppe in the front room of a sort of laboratory-tasting room complex in the town of Lauffen. I was wondering how they were going to conduct what was sure to be a robust tasting after having destroyed everyone’s palates with the soup course. We went into a concrete-clad room full of barrels, some of them impressively carved. One had an intricate relief of a man in ¾ profile with long cascading curls. He was a poet named Justinius Kerner, who had, like many of us poets, been fascinated by wine, and who was the namesake of the Kerner grape, which had been bred at that very facility.
I suddenly knew what might go with asparagus.
We are at that time of year where it’s not spring, not really, but for a day or two the sun comes out and a bunch of trees bloom and you see butterflies for the first time in months and you are filled with a desire for open toed shoes, bare legs, and light-bodied white wine. You will be faked out immediately if you give in on the shoes: Hail will descend from the heavens. But the wine’s totally low-risk. I propose, for the beginning of the ephemeral and sometimes rather stinky asparagus season, looking into Kerner and Gruner Veltliner.
Kerner and Gruner are not kin but they have certain similarities. Kerner is a “go along to get along” German grape with pale skinned, medium-berried clusters. Its turn-ons include really cold winters, sub-optimal soils and steep slopes. Gruner Veltliner is an Austrian type whose parentage is complicated enough that you can imagine Diana Rigg describing it in her Olenna Tyrell costume; it has green berries, and appreciates silty soils, so it is often planted near rivers. Gruner is a major player in Austria and Croatia but also has excellent expressions in Italy and Oregon. Kerner is very German but finds itself at home in Alps-adjacent Italy too (not to mention a suspicious number of producers playing with this frost-loving grape in hot, hot Lodi, CA).
These unrelated grapes do have things in common. They tend to make wines that can be in the “water with a kick” range of light-bodied (I’m not saying they are uniquely low alcohol, they just feel like it!), and they have ample and beautiful aromatics (Kerner is often appley, though as a descendent of Riesling it can express more tropical notes as well; Gruner generally has a hallmark “zingy” acidity and favors lime, green herb and orrisroot notes). They are both masterful at pairing with a huge variety of foods including feisty pairing challengers like asparagus. And they both make a lovely choice for happy hour on that first day of fake spring.
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner (Italy, $16)
Man, I love these guys. So. Much. Oeno-monks in Alto Adige, Italy make this gorgeous Kerner. Tart green apple, kiwi fruit, nutmeg, custard, honeysuckle and if you have ever eaten almonds when they are still green? That. Ultra-suave and not a drop of hauteur.
Castelfeder “Lahn” Kerner (Italy, $18)
Lime. Peach. Meadow blossoms. A hint of mango. Grapefruit. Green melon. Ripe yet delicate. Layered yet simple. A certain briskness, but not too much. Brilliant balance.
Eisacktaller Kellerei Valle Isarco Alto Adige Kerner (Italy, $16)
Is it my imagination? I don’t think so. I think you can taste the quartz in the bedrock of Alto Adige when you drink this stuff. It has a particular glinting sort of minerality that just sings. This wine reminds you that Kerner is a progeny of Muscat with its spicy perfume. Nutmeg and apricots, a little apple, peachy finish.
Illahe Gruner Veltliner (Oregon, $22)
Yum! Feather-light but somehow still substantial. Apple. Peach. Grapefruit. Nectarine. Something almost cedar-like you don’t expect from the varietal, but it’s Oregon so anything can happen (I believe this is aged in acacia barrels, which might impart some unusual notes). It has herb tones and a lightly honeyed character. My synesthetic makes-no-sense descriptor for this wine is “dappled.”
Kramer Gruner Veltliner (Oregon, $24)
PS, Kramer also makes a delicious sparkling Gruner, and a still Kerner. This steel-aged Gruner is decidedly citrusy and dancingly light on the palate. Peach, pear, apple, jasmine and freshly mown grass on a warm evening? Yes, that. Flirty acidity, good balance.
Loimer “Lois” Gruner Veltliner (Austria)
Light. Savory. Intriguing spiciness and racy acidity. Some vegetal notes (arugula?) and tart apple. Pronounced lemon note. Basic in a good way. Very versatile.
Savage Grace Gruner Veltliner (Washington, $22)
Michael Savage has an antidote for anyone who has major palate fatigue from punchy, high-extraction, “big” wines. He specializes in the understated and lean. This Gruner is kind of in the “enhanced water” spectrum, which I mean as a compliment. It is so restrained and easygoing you can easily put away a whole bottle without blinking. Honey, apples, lime pith, grapefruit, and Washington’s signature basalt minerality.
Willamette Valley Vineyards Gruner Veltliner (Oregon, $24)
I saw a review of this wine that called it “thick?” I have to say I didn’t experience that at all. This is a skinny little minx of a wine by my lights, with a faint rosiness and a kind of dewy character. Lemon and lime zest, a little dried thyme, wet stone, and a trace of pepper. Delightful.
Zocker Gruner Veltliner (California $20)
“Zocker,” which is German for “gambler,” because no one was planting it in Chardonnay-loving Edna Valley. The gamble paid off. This is some good juice. Bigger and richer than most of the wines listed here, but still with the popping acidity that lets you know what you’re drinking. An almost zany panoply of fruit notes including lemon, melon, peach, pineapple and grapefruit, with a white-pepper finish.