Shelley Lindgren Explains How to Pair Wine with Artichokes

Wine and artichokes don’t mix, right? At least that’s what wine drinkers learn when they unexpectedly encounter that weird metallic taste when drinking Chardonnay with artichoke barigoule. But what if this pairing can work? For James Beard Award-winning wine director Shelley Lindgren, it’s all about going back to the place where artichokes take center stage: Italy. Lindgren has always loved eating artichokes, and because she focuses on Italian wine at her San Francisco restaurants A16 and SPQR, she has found multiple ways to make the tricky pairing work. (A word to the wise: look beyond Chardonnay—most of the time.) Here, she shares how.

Conventional wisdom says you can’t pair wine with artichokes. Is that still the prevailing thought?

For the most part, yes. Even in Italy, where artichokes are eaten everywhere when they’re in season, it’s often thought that it’s difficult to pair wine and artichokes. (I was in Rome this past Easter, and artichokes were literally everywhere.) But since I come at Italian wines as a Californian, I have a different perspective. I see that there are so many grapes in Italy—and so many methods of cooking artichokes—that you can eventually find the right match. There is more than one choice depending on what style of wine you drink. I’m a huge artichoke lover. I’m tasting wine as part of my job, so I am going to find a way to make the two work together.

Are there certain things you learned early on when pairing artichokes with wine?

There are definitely some “don’t dos” with artichokes. Stay away from sweeter wines. Not that all Rieslings aren’t going to pair with artichokes, but it’s much more difficult to do. That said, there are crosses of Riesling and Trollinger that work because the cross introduces acidity and the sweetness goes down. So there are always exceptions to rules.

What happens when you pair a sweet wine with artichokes?

If you’re steaming artichokes or eating them raw and shaved in a salad, a sweeter wine clashes with the fibers and gives it a metallic flavor. Generally, you want a drier wine. Frascati, which is from Lazio, the region surrounding Rome, is made with a blend of white grapes—like Malvasia, Tebbiano, and Grechetto— and it’s a good wine to pair with artichokes. You also want to stay away from wines that have big tannins because artichokes don’t compliment the astringency from tannins, they heighten it. It leaves a cotton ball feeling in your mouth, and it’s not pleasant on your palate. But when you take away those two options—wines that are sweet and wines that are tannic—you have a lot of wines to choose from.

What works better?

You can look for a smooth, elegant red wine to pair with artichokes. I love Cesanese, a red wine from outside of Rome. It goes along with the “if it grows together, it goes together” philosophy, since Rome is known for artichokes and Cesanese is a local grape. A Cesanese wine is going to be lower in tannins; it is a nice, medium to full-bodied wine. I’ve had it with a lot of artichoke dishes. There are also some reds from Puglia, like young Primitivo, or from Campania, like Piedirosso or Frappato. Those are wines with a nice balance of acidity, and the tannins tend to be rounder and less astringent.

Is it harder to pair white wine with artichokes?

Not at all. Most dry, crisp whites—and rosés—also go really well with artichokes, especially if they have a mineral focus. East of Naples and grown in the volcanic soils of Avellino area, Greco di Tufo is a good one to try. So are crisper whites from the Amalfi coast, Mt. Etna, or Friuli. These wines are a lot like drinking a Sauvignon Blanc—it’s classic and crisp, and it’s a better option than a rich Chardonnay. But say you’re dipping a steamed artichoke into aïoli. Then Chardonnay might be fine, since you have added fat to the equation.

It’s the same thing with oysters. You want dry, crisp, mineral-y, wine to go with briny ocean flavor. It’s hard to think about not having wine with oysters. I feel that way about artichokes—it’s hard for me to have artichokes without wine.

With a fried artichoke pairing, where would you go?

Rosé would be fantastic. At this time of year, all of these great rosés come out; it’s the release time. But it’s also the time for the new vintage of whites. This is when we start looking at what wines we have in stock and we start crossing into new vintages. But a lot of whites age better than you think. So even if you are having something fried, you might want something with less acidity and more age. Some natural wines would be great with fried artichokes. Natural wines tend to be more savory, more in the direction of salt than sweet.

Do you have a favorite artichoke pairing?

I have so many favorites! In California, we live very close to where 90 percent of artichokes in the U.S. come from. We have them in our markets early and they are in season for quite a while. I think artichokes can be and easy to cook at home—but they can be a good thing to eat out as well because they require some preparation. In Rome, they have farmers’ markets where someone prepares your artichokes for carciofe alla romana for you. Carciofe alla romana is a classic. It’s an artichoke slowly braised in an herbal white wine broth, and you really want a white wine with it. Frascati is great with this artichoke preparation. Not only is it another example of the “grows together, goes together” philosophy, but it also is a nice white blend that pulls the herbs out and accents them. It’s very balanced with the dish. I love that combination.

Sometimes, you use artichokes as an ingredient with your protein or in your pasta or in a pizza. Sometimes you want a bit of lighter red. That’s where I go to Cesanese. It reminds me of a Grenache-based wine, and you have a lot of artichokes in the south of France, too.

You’re going to have your most fun enjoying the wine and food together. The wine will taste better, and the food will taste better. It isn’t just about making the food better. Food and wine pairings, to me, it’s art. It’s one of the best ways to enjoy both. Even when it’s a tricky pairing.

What pairings do you look forward to after artichoke season?

Next will be zucchini. You find zucchini everywhere in southern Italy: you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’ll have it for dessert. So we’re going to do a week of summer squash wine pairings. We will do a zucchini salad, put the squash blossoms into pasta, and we will geek out on our wine selections. I love rosé with zucchini because rosé is a very summertime wine. You can also do reds like Nero D’Avola from Sicily. With sardines and, zucchini, Nero D’Avola is a classic pairing.

Menu from A16’s recent artichoke pairing dinner
artichoke salad shaved artichoke, fennel, mint, lemon, pecorino riserva Marco Carpineti, 'Capolemole' Cori, Latina, Lazio 2014 (Greco Moro/Bellone)
carciofi oil-poached artichoke, ricotta, lemon zest, oregano Damiano Ciolli, 'Silene' Cesanese, Olevano Romano, Roma, Lazio 2013
bucatini artichoke, anchovy, garlic, chili, fried breadcrumbs Barraco, 'Vignemmare' Grillo, Marsala, Trapani, Sicilia 2014
stuffed artichoke ‘nduja, calabrian chili, breadcrumbs, grana padano Enza la Fauci, 'Terra di Vento' Venetico Marina, Messina, Sicilia 2009 (Nerello Macsalese/Nero D'Avola)
tiramisu lady fingers, mascarpone, espresso, caramel, cynar Giovanni Bosca, 'Cardamaro' Canelli, Piemonte

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