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Wine With Vietnamese Yummies

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 20, 2006 1:14pm ET

In the end, choosing wine with unfamiliar food always is a crapshoot. Just when you think you have it figured out, the perfect wine doesn't work.

At lunch the other day at Bong Su, the hot new Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, Australian exporter John Larchet brought a bottle of his new Hill of Content sparkling red wine. A blend of Shiraz and Cabernet, it is lighter and dryer than most Aussie red fizz, with a minty note weaving through the cherry flavors.

Spying an appetizer of Grilled Nem Sausage, he said, "This dish ought to be perfect with this wine." So we ordered it. Shaped roughly like bite-size rugby balls, each grilled pork and prawn delicacy was nestled in a butter lettuce cup with a tangle of rice noodles and fresh mint leaves. The dish was a winner, but it robbed the wine of its fruit. Completely. It just went dead.

Fortunately, there was a Pike's Reserve Riesling on the table as well. It did what the red fizz could not: retain its own character and complement the rather delicate flavors of the dish. It was the red wine elements in the fizz that sunk it with the dish. It needed a white, and the light sweetness in the dish only made the dry Riesling zingier.

Vietnamese cooks like to use sweetness as a balance to sour and hot flavors. One of the best dishes on the menu here is Tamarine Prawns, a tart-sweet tamarind glaze adding zip to jumbo, juicy, shell-on prawns. The dish kills dry wines, but I had it on another occasion with Maximin Grünhauser Spätlese Abtsberg 2005, and the wine's sweetness let it sing alongside the prawns. A dry wine would curl up like that red fizz with the sausage.

Which is not to say that red wines can't perform with other Vietnamese dishes. Another dish on Bong Su's menu, Passion Fruit Duck, brings a sliced duck breast with a delicate glaze of passion fruit and chive flowers. The meatiness of the duck cuddled up with John's pleasantly supple Blackbilly Shiraz 2004 from McLaren Vale like they were meant for each other. The sparkling red tasted great with it too.

"The 2003 Blackbilly would have been too much for this dish," said John, remembering the ultra-ripe character of the earlier vintage. "This vintage works because it's not over the top."

It always annoys me when wine experts recommend specific wines for all "Chinese food" or "Vietnamese food," as if everything in the cuisine had the same character and therefore the same wine affinities. Asian dishes work with wines on the same basis as western dishes do. It pays to know what you're eating.

Stephen Symchych
Boston, MA —  December 20, 2006 3:34pm ET
Of course, some wines will hold their own with a broader variety of foods. Pinot noir is very food-friendly-- red Burgundy with some vigor is my default choice for Cantonese or HK food from duck to seafood-- and riesling is remarkably flexible and forgiving with a lot of things, not just Asian.But in situations like this, I call over the sommelier and say "I know some of your wines but I've never eaten your food. What do YOU like to drink with X?"
John W Graham Iii
Richmond VA —  December 21, 2006 1:48pm ET
Great angle Stephen!Completely agree on all points.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  December 22, 2006 6:30pm ET
Just ate at Bong Su. Great food, great atmosphere. Poor hostesses (too young for the high end restaurant gig), pathetic bartender (after 3 minutes he handed me a drink menu...then, after waiting for 6-7 minutes, we decided to go straight to our table as he failed to ask us if we would like anything)...Restaurant was very slow as it was during the last week (dead because most people are traveling for the holidays). They have no excuse for nearly ruining the chef's great food.
Chris Hilliard
Minnesota —  December 22, 2006 9:43pm ET
Hello Mr. Steiman, My name is Chris Hilliard, I am very interested in Australian Zin, Could you put me on the right path for more Info. I would also love to hear from you on your views on the Zin from there. Thanks for any help you could give.Chris

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