What goes with chop suey?

KAREN MACNEIL-FIFE

I generally rely on instinct when pairing wine and food. That'seasy enough when the food is roast chicken, which, like many otherAmerican dishes - or French or Italian - has not one, but many,delicious wine partners. Bring lemon grass, ginger, and curry intothe picture, however, and wine pairing veers off this flexiblecourse.

It's not quite as easy to be instinctive about pairing wine withchili-laced Thai noodles. Even a familiar dish like chicken sataywith spicy peanut sauce presents a new challenge in thinking abouthow flavors work together. Because I love both Asian flavors andwine, I've spent more than a year experimenting with putting themtogether. Here's what I've discovered so far.

First of all, it's inaccurate to talk about Asian cuisine as asingular entity. The region is immense and, culinarily speaking,includes everything from absolutely subtle dishes to those sovibrantly spiced they make your mouth tingle. Still, what many ofus find irresistible are the foods incorporating ingredients thatcan be hard on wine: soy sauce, fish sauce, chilies and chilipaste, 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 fruitycharacteristics, and make them taste bitter, oaky, or too high inalcohol.

So what wines do work? Any that meet the following criteria.

They aren't Chardonnay. Very oaky, toasty Chardonnays tastelike 2-by-4s when paired with strong Asian flavors.

They aren't Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Tannic wines likethese fight with Asian flavors, and the wines lose. They end uptasting bitter, lean, and mean.

They're high in acid. Snappy, clean, high-acid wines areright in sync with Asian flavors. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, forinstance, with their penetrating acidity and clean tropicalflavors, are a sensational match. So are unoaked Pinot Grigios fromItaly and California. Or try a Pinot Gris from Oregon.

They're wildly aromatic, with pronounced fruit flavors.Varieties like Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Riesling, andMalvasia Bianca are superb with Asian dishes. Look forGewürztraminers from Alsace, Viogniers from California, andRieslings from Alsace, California, Washington, or Australia.

If they're red, they're big and jammy. Full-throttled,berry-fruited Zinfandels, Rhône blends, and Syrahs fromCalifornia, as well as Shirazes from Australia, are all greatmatches.

And don't forget rosé. This unsung hero of a winecategory is just begging to be drunk with Asian dishes. The singlebest match of all might be a rosé sparkling wine orChampagne.

WINES FOR ASIAN DISHES

Chateau St. Jean Johannisberg Riesling 1998 (Sonoma County),$9. Beautifully aromatic and flavorful, with orange blossom andapricot 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 litchiflavors.

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 twofabulous 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) islightly aromatic and creamy. Red Ochre (Grenache and Shiraz) ispacked with deliciously rustic

A FATHER'S DAY IDEA

Yes, you could give him a bottle of wine, but here's somethingthat will last a little longer - The Oxford Companion to Wine (Oxford University Press, NewYork, 1999; $65). The second edition of this book - the single bestwine reference written in English - has just been released. With3,400 entries organized alphabetically, it's easy to look upeverything from Alsace to Château Margaux to Zinfandel. ThomasJefferson and monks even have listings. More to the point, the bookexplores every wine region, grape variety, famous winemaker, andimportant time in wine history. And if your father is curious abouttechnology, topics such as tannin maturity, malolacticfermentation, and yeast action should interest him - they are allexplained with the lay reader in mind.

The thick Oxford Companion to Wine was written by more than 100 winewriters and edited by the highly regarded British wine expertJancis Robinson. It's available at most bookstores.

Sunset's Wine Club

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