WineLine No. 20
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
June 24, 2002

Asian fare and Western wines

Dear Friends:

Conventional wisdom tells us Asian cuisines pair poorly with Western wines. Something about the spices, the soy, or the fermented black beans supposedly destroys the softer flavor of fermented black grapes. So most Chinese restaurants offer one or two nondescript and poorly chosen wines, while Japanese restaurants stick to sake and Thai with beer.

The conventional wisdom is nonsense. Any cuisine or dish that offers properly balanced flavors (salty, sweet, bitter, sour and hot in the Chinese lexicon, plus the "sixth taste," or umami in Japanese cuisine) can find its match in a properly balanced wine. The trick, as with any dish, is to match the flavors on the plate to those in the glass so they mesh well on your palate. By listening to the conventional wisdom, proprietors of Asian restaurants may be missing out on a valuable source of profits as well as depriving customers of some added enjoyment when they dine.

Some restaurants have gone boldly beyond the conventional wisdom by featuring Asian foods with wine. In Washington, D.C., Sushi-Ko has been "thinking outside the box," to use a phrase currently in vogue, by pairing raw fish with red Burgundy. Proprietor Daisuke Utagawa argues (successfully) that the mild tannins of Burgundy react with the essence of the raw fish to unleash the wine's fruit. At Yanyu, chef Jessie Yan and her partners pair a wide array of wines – mostly from the Pacific Rim but including some French – with her predominantly Chinese cuisine.

In Chicago, Arun's maintains a list of more than 100 wines to match the spicy curries of its classic Thai cuisine. The list favors flowery whites, such as Riesling and Viognier, and spicy reds such as Rhone Syrahs or American Zinfandels. In New York, Tabla cools down Indian heat with Pinot Noir, Rieslings or sparkling wines – essentially medium-bodied wines with a good measure of fruit and crisp acidity.

Wine guru Robert Parker favors the Nebbiolo-based wines of Italy's Piedmont with dim sum. "Soy is a flavor I get in Nebbiolo," Parker tells Alan Richman in GQ's April issue.

So something works. And no, we don't have to follow Parker to the expensive Barolos and Barbarescos of northwestern Italy. Generally, we are looking for wines that feature abundant fruit and gentle (if any) tannins; these are the ones that can stand up to the pungent flavors of Asian cuisines.

Nix those oaky California Chardonnays in favor of the "new" unoaked style from Australia and New Zealand. Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay ($18), which I featured last month in my discussion of screwcaps, is an excellent choice for fish-, chicken- or pork-based stir fries. Yangarra Park, Kendall-Jackson's Australian adventure, offers a soft, fruity style of Chardonnay that pairs well with Asian seafood dishes. Some U.S. wineries are adopting this style; a good local example is Breaux Vineyard's "Madeleine's" Chardonnay from Virginia. Look also for Rieslings from Australia (Yalumba), Washington state (Columbia) or New York's Finger Lakes (Fox Run, Silver Thread and several more). For delicate dishes, try flowery whites such as Marsanne or Viognier (eg. Horton and Chrysalis, respectively, from Virginia). When your tummy's thinking Asian is a good time to reach for some of those under-appreciated wines, such as Chenin Blanc (Vinum, Dry Creek or Calloway Coastal from California, or Vouvrays from the Loire), or American Gewurztraminer (White Hall from Virginia, Fox Run, Chateau St. Jean or Navarro, if you can get it.)

Think fruity also for reds, such as Shiraz from Australia (Yangarra Park – the 2001 is a superb value at $10). Pinot Noir has an affinity for ginger that leaves a lot of room for experimentation. Cabernet Franc's spicy white pepper notes match an important flavoring in Chinese cuisine. Stay away from tannic wines that might turn lean and astringent.

So where did this conventional wisdom come from that tells us not to drink wine with Asian foods? Perhaps it's cultural, since those cuisines were not traditionally paired with grape wines. Having many dishes on the table at the same time, instead of the Western tradition of sequential courses, also makes it challenging to come up with a suitable wine match. (Just think of all those clichéd wine columns you read the week before Thanksgiving each year: "Oh the sweet potatoes! And cranberries!") And the tumult of flavors that often combine in a single dish may lead us to throw up our hands in surrender to Sir Bud. That's too bad, though, because that variety of flavors can be a license to experiment. With so much going on, something has to interact nicely with the wine.

One major caveat, however: If your choices from column A and column B tend to have those little red chili peppers by them, I advise sticking to beer. Excessive heat is wine's worst enemy. Or maybe its second-worst enemy, after conventional wisdom.

Postscript: Following last month's WineLine on screwcaps, I heard from Andrew Spinaze, senior winemaker at Tyrrell's in Australia, who informed me that the wine press – including yours truly – is missing the point when we say the new closures are the cure for TCA, or cork taint.

The reason so many Australian vintners are embracing the screwcap, Spinaze explains, is not so much corked wines but oxidized wines, leading to bottle variation over time. Traditional corks, he argues, are simply unreliable.

"Imagine you have a case of great wine in your cellar that's about five years old and cost say $100 a bottle, and you open the wine only to discover that the bottles range in quality from undrinkable all the way up to one perfect bottle," he says. "I wonder if the romance of the corkscrew would be so appealing if you can't drink the wine? TCA is a major problem, but it's not the main problem."

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