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A New Playbook for Pairings

Sommelier Hai Tran looks for shared flavors when designing a list for Asian-inspired food

Nathan Wesley
Posted: April 30, 2011

Hai Tran had no intention of entering the wine business. A first-generation Vietnamese-American, born and raised in Orlando, Fla., Tran attended Duke University with ambitions to attend medical school. But a position waiting tables at the Fairview Dining Room at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, whose wine list holds a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, led to a job with a local wine distributor, which in turn introduced him to An New World Cuisine's Vietnamese chef and owner, Michael Chuong. Chuong hired Tran to manage his growing wine list at the Cary, North Carolina restaurant, which today notches more than 500 selections and a Best of Award of Excellence. Tran spoke with Wine Spectator about pairing wines with the chef's innovative dishes, which blend bold Asian ingredients with traditional French techniques.

Wine Spectator: How do you pair wine with all the complex Asian flavors found on the chef's menu?
Hai Tran: I find flavors that complement each other. For example, lemongrass can have a very strong citrus and astringent quality, so I usually try to pair that with something that has a similar quality, like a Sauvignon Blanc or Grüner Veltliner.

WS: How do you pair wine with some of the other distinctive vegetal flavors, such as ginger, scallion and cabbage?
HT: I look for wines that not only have acidity, but also a good fruit profile. Here you can go for something a little more ripe, more modern—something that can hold up to those flavors. But I still look for balance between acidity and fruit because when you have a dish that has these more astringent qualities, I think that the fruit comes out even more in wine.

WS: What about working with spice?
HT: When we do things with chiles and spices, I'm looking for either a wine that has a little bit of residual sugar, like a Gewürztraminer or a Riesling, or one that has the acidity to help with the spiciness of the dish. In general, I try to match the weight of the flavors and sauces with the weight of the wine, as well—that way the flavor or the weight of the dish doesn't completely obliterate the wine itself.

WS: What is the chef's most popular dish, and what do you pair with it?
HT: We basically have two signature dishes that never come off the menu even though the chef changes the menu four or five times a year. Those two dishes are Miso Sea Bass and the Walnut Prawns.

For our sea bass, I usually choose a well-balanced Chardonnay, whether from Burgundy, California, Oregon or wherever else, as long as it's balanced and has a nice richness to match the richness of the sauce. I like a Chassagne-Montrachet, and I enjoy a Ramey Chardonnay with that dish as well. I think [David Ramey] does a really great job of making a rich but well-balanced Chardonnay that complements the dish's flavors. And it has a nice fresh core of fruit to it that does well with the little bit of fattiness that you get with the sea bass.

For the Walnut Prawns, I do something a little on the lighter side, yet that has a little richness, like a Pinot Grigio, or, even better, an Alsatian or Oregon Pinot Gris. They can handle a little bit of that spice you get with the dish's spicy cream sauce. It's a subtle spice, not a heavy spice, and Pinot Gris' richer, creamier style does a good job with those flavors.

WS: What do you like to drink with sushi?
HT: If I'm having just some clean flavors, like sashimi, I enjoy drinking sake. A really nice ginjo, which also has clean flavors, complements the various fishes in a sashimi sampler. For people that are a little averse to sake, I usually [suggest] sparkling wine, whether a Champagne, crémant or Prosecco. I think sparkling wines can stand up to soy, wasabi and that umami, spice and pickled-sweet flavors you get from the pickled ginger.

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