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.