Like the authors of an excellent new book on the subject, it drives me nuts when I read or hear recommendations for a single wine to go with "Chinese food," or Japanese or Indian food, for that matter. I learned a long time ago that it's just like matching wine with anything else.
Cecilia Chiang, whose restaurant, Mandarin, has been a longtime fixture in San Francisco, first opened my eyes to the possibilities. She put on a dinner in the early 1980s in which she served some of her restaurant's classic dishes with high-end California wines. As I recall, there wasn't a single Riesling or Gewürztraminer in the mix, but I vividly remember the moment when I took a sip of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 1977 with Mandarin's Peking duck. It made the wine deeper and richer.
From that moment on, I realized that the same things that made wine and food work well together in French or Italian cuisine are at work in Asian cuisines, even if those cuisines come from cultures that do not traditionally drink wine. For example, people in Burgundy use vinegar liberally in traditional dishes. Why? The acidity of the vinegar softens the wines, which tend to be high in acid. Similarly, I like crisp, dry Austrian Grüner Veltliner with Chinese steamed dumplings, which are often dipped in vinegar. Works the same way.
Putting the knowledge into practice is another matter. San Francisco has plenty of opportunities to eat Asian food, but until recently the wine lists were seldom extensive. That's changing. I can name more than a dozen excellent wine lists in Asian restaurants here. I particularly like Slanted Door and Bong Su, both Vietnamese. Shanghai 1930, Ana Mandara, Crustacean, Le Colonial and Straits are among those with Wine Spectator awards. On recent visits to Las Vegas, I have been impressed with how many of the major hotels' Chinese and Japanese restaurants have wine lists with 300 to 500 options, and sometimes more.
Although wine lists in Asian restaurants are still rare, that doesn't stop wine lovers from searching for good matches with their favorite wines. There is no dearth of opinion out there.
In their preface to Wine with Asian Food: New Frontiers in Taste (Tide-Mark Press, $29.95, 173 pages), Patricia Guy and Edwin Soon wrote that they kept coming across what struck them as inappropriate ideas, such as grassy Sauvignon Blanc with Thai food (they like Soave better). They live across the world from each other, she in Verona, Italy, he in Canberra, Australia, so they started emailing each other with their own musings on wines to drink with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai and Singaporean dishes.
Over several years those emails evolved into this book. They outline a useful system that divides Asian food dishes into five flavor categories and wine into seven styles, three of them sweet. Guy and Soon find plenty of dishes to match with dry wines, but so many Asian dishes freely use hot spices. They think those dishes often match better with wines of varying degrees of sweetness. Spicy food often makes dry wines taste sharp, which is why I prefer sweet wines with them, whether the dish is Thai or Southwestern American. And why not? The basic elements are the same. Only the grace notes of flavor are different.
Pretty much right down the line, their ideas jibe with my own experience. This is so even though we come at it from different perspectives. Their approach focuses on what the wine does for the food, while mine puts more emphasis on what the food does to the wine.
For example, that Jordan Cabernet went so well with Peking Duck because the gentle gaminess of the duck and richness of the duck fat affected the wine in the same way a western roast duck would.
One of the best things in the book is a taste test of Asian ingredients with wines of specific types. They suggest sampling lime juice, which appears in many Thai and Vietnamese dishes, with crisp, dry, aromatic whites (such as Champagne, German and Austrian trockens, Muscadets and Sauvignon Blancs), to see the effect they have on each other. A taste of Chinese oyster sauce with oak-aged whites such as Chardonnay or fortified wines such as Sherry can cause unexpected vibrations. Curry powder mixed into yogurt makes juicy white wines such Albariño from Spain or light reds such as Gamay or Côtes du Rhône come to life differently.
Guy and Soon include 50 classic Asian recipes to give home cooks a chance to do their own experimentation. Because these dishes are commonly available in restaurants, they give anyone a nice playbook for choosing wine with their favorite Asian cuisines.
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — February 25, 2008 4:19pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — February 25, 2008 5:00pm ET
Chum Lee — Mendocino, CA — February 25, 2008 10:49pm ET
Jeffrey Ghi — New York — February 25, 2008 11:51pm ET
Sam Chanhao — calgary — February 26, 2008 4:37am ET
Asia Pacific Wine Group — Seoul, Korea — February 26, 2008 6:14am ET
Jordan Harris — Niagara, Ontario — February 26, 2008 7:36pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — February 27, 2008 2:11pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — February 27, 2008 2:13pm ET
Steven A Stern — Ponte Vedra, FL — March 26, 2008 3:24pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions