I generally rely on instinct when pairing wine and food. That's easy enough when the food is roast chicken, which, like many other American dishes - or French or Italian - has not one, but many, delicious wine partners. Bring lemon grass, ginger, and curry into the picture, however, and wine pairing veers off this flexible course.
It's not quite as easy to be instinctive about pairing wine with chili-laced Thai noodles. Even a familiar dish like chicken satay with spicy peanut sauce presents a new challenge in thinking about how flavors work together. Because I love both Asian flavors and wine, I've spent more than a year experimenting with putting them together. Here's what I've discovered so far.
First of all, it's inaccurate to talk about Asian cuisine as a singular entity. The region is immense and, culinarily speaking, includes everything from absolutely subtle dishes to those so vibrantly spiced they make your mouth tingle. Still, what many of us find irresistible are the foods incorporating ingredients that can be hard on wine: soy sauce, fish sauce, chilies and chili paste, ginger, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, and hoisin sauce, plus spices and herbs like cardamom, cumin, coriander, five spice, curry powder, and Thai basil. Wonderful as they are in a dish, these flavors can flatten many wines, rob them of their fruity characteristics, and make them taste bitter, oaky, or too high in alcohol.
So what wines do work? Any that meet the following criteria.
They aren't Chardonnay. Very oaky, toasty Chardonnays taste like 2-by-4s when paired with strong Asian flavors.
They aren't Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Tannic wines like these fight with Asian flavors, and the wines lose. They end up tasting bitter, lean, and mean.
They're high in acid. Snappy, clean, high-acid wines are right in sync with Asian flavors. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, for instance, with their penetrating acidity and clean tropical flavors, are a sensational match. So are unoaked Pinot Grigios from Italy and California. Or try a Pinot Gris from Oregon.
They're wildly aromatic, with pronounced fruit flavors. Varieties like Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Riesling, and Malvasia Bianca are superb with Asian dishes. Look for Gewürztraminers from Alsace, Viogniers from California, and Rieslings from Alsace, California, Washington, or Australia.
If they're red, they're big and jammy. Full-throttled, berry-fruited Zinfandels, Rhône blends, and Syrahs from California, as well as Shirazes from Australia, are all great matches.
And don't forget rosé. This unsung hero of a wine category is just begging to be drunk with Asian dishes. The single best match of all might be a rosé sparkling wine or Champagne.
WINES FOR ASIAN DISHES
Chateau St. Jean Johannisberg Riesling 1998 (Sonoma County), $9. Beautifully aromatic and flavorful, with orange blossom and apricot notes.
Handley Gewürztraminer 1998 (Anderson Valley, CA), $14. Dramatic acidity, with an edge of litchi, ginger, and pear.
Wild Horse Malvasia Bianca 1999 (Monterey County), $13. Almost sorbetlike, with refreshing peach, tangerine, and litchi flavors.
Cambria Tepusquet Vineyard Syrah 1998 (Santa Maria Valley, CA), $22. Juicy boysenberry pie flavors and a fabulous dense, creamy texture.
Rosemount Estate Shiraz 1999 (McLaren Vale, Australia), $12. Wonderful berry fruit and a soft, supple texture.
SUNSET'S STEALS OF THE MONTH
White Ochre 1998 and Red Ochre 1997 (McLaren Vale, Australia), $9 each. These two fabulous wines are made by the Australian producer d'Arenberg, known better for stunning wines that cost several times as much. White Ochre (Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc) is lightly aromatic and creamy. Red Ochre (Grenache and Shiraz) is packed with deliciously rustic
A FATHER'S DAY IDEA
Yes, you could give him a bottle of wine, but here's something that will last a little longer - The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford University Press, New York, 1999; $65). The second edition of this book - the single best wine reference written in English - has just been released. With 3,400 entries organized alphabetically, it's easy to look up everything from Alsace to Château Margaux to Zinfandel. Thomas Jefferson and monks even have listings. More to the point, the book explores every wine region, grape variety, famous winemaker, and important time in wine history. And if your father is curious about technology, topics such as tannin maturity, malolactic fermentation, and yeast action should interest him - they are all explained with the lay reader in mind.
The thick Oxford Companion to Wine was written by more than 100 wine writers and edited by the highly regarded British wine expert Jancis Robinson. It's available at most bookstores.