Oh, for the days of "red wine with beef, white wine with fish." The expansion of the Western food repertoire to include ingredients and seasonings of other cultures, particularly Asian, has complicated the art of wine and food matching to the point that many diners say the hell with it and order a beer. And, in fact, beer, with its combination of tartness and sweetness, aromatics and earth flavors, is often a good choice to accompany Asian food. But die-hard wine lovers won't settle for such an easy way out: For them, it's match or go hungry.
In our part of the world, the most ambitious program to harmonize Eastern foods and Western grapes centers on Capitol Hill's Monsoon Restaurant, where the management has scheduled a series of special wine and food dinners exploring the challenges and opportunities of such pairing. (The next takes place Nov. 1; call 206-325-2111 for details.) In mid-August, the Seattle food press was invited to sample the restaurant's Thai-inspired cooking along with wines chosen by Cordon Selections' Matt Mabus.
"I think the key to success is focusing on one ingredient when choosing the wine," says Mabus, a regular diner at Eric Bhan's popular bistro. "Take coconut, which is very fatty; hearty red wine combines well with it for the same reason it does with red meat—the fats bond with the tannins in the wine and tones them down. But you can choose to accent the ingredient instead of balance it. Lemongrass has a final peppery note, and hot Thai chilies really sing out against a Vouvray from the Loire."
At the press dinner, Mabus paired a spicy New Zealand gewürztraminer with halibut cheeks in a bitter tamarind soup, and a crisp but off-dry Mosel riesling to round out the diversity of flavors in a lotus salad with grilled pork and shrimp served with seafood spring rolls. A main-dish salad of sautéed Kobe beef with fresh tomatoes, corn, and mushrooms resonated nicely with a light but pungent rosé from the south of France.
Of course, at a place like Monsoon, whose owner is as passionate about wine as about food, diners aren't left to their own devices; the wine list is specifically crafted to match the food, and the staff is ready with suggestions should any question arise. But what about when you're left on your own? Wine merchant Dan McCarthy has a formula to help you come through successfully: Think Alsace. "Alsatian pinot blanc, tokai, and riesling, any of those wines high in glycerine [which gives roundness and smoothness without perceptible sweetening] work well with spicy food in general. Among reds, look for the peppery grenache-based wines of the Rhône. And one rule to remember: If there's ginger in the food, no oak in the wine."