I’VE WORKED AS A SOMMELIER at many an Asian restaurant in New York Cityfrom New Japanese (Sono, now defunct) to Peking and Shanghainese (midtown stalwart Tse Yang) to modern Indian (Gramercy’s Tamarind)and at all of them, I’ve heard the same thing over and over: “I only drink beer with [insert Asian food]. It’s not a wine-friendly cuisine.”
Absolute drivelprobably from some starched-collar, old-money stiff. Food and wine are about experimenting, about finding new flavors. Yes, I appreciateeven lovea good Burgundy or Barolo, but the wine world is changing.
And because it’s changing, TripmasterMonkey.com is inaugurating this column, “Drunken Monkey,” to find the perfect wines to suit the Asian foods that you and I can’t live without. Once a month I’ll weigh in with three recommendations at different price points (low, medium, and high) for a single dish, be it baingan bartha or balut, fried rice or zaru soba. In part, the dish will be up to you: e-mail “Drunken Monkey” with your desperate pleas for wine pairings.
And to kick things off right, TMM’s editors have asked meno, challenged meto select fermented-grape beverages for a trio of hard-to-match favorites: pho, tandoori chicken, and kimchee. An unorthodox tasting menu that gives us a chance to try some kick-ass wines.
Let’s get started.
PHO. Classic Vietnamese. You have a fragrant, salty stock. The meat involved varies from flank steak to brisket to tripe, but it’s not usually an overly flavorful cut. A light-to-medium-bodied red is perfect.
Cheap Monkey: William Cole’s 2005
Pinot Noir ($10)
Modest Monkey: A to Z Pinor Noir ($18)
Splurge Monkey: 2003 Montevertine Pian de Ciampolo ($21)
William Cole’s 2005 Pinot Noir from Chile ($10) is spot-on. Pinot, if you haven’t seen Sideways, is a precocious, thin-skinned grape that doesn’t do well everywhere. Fortunately for us, Pinot seems to like Chile. In this hemisphere, Pinot, as with most other grapes, takes on a more fruit-forward persona. The ‘05 William Cole has good red cherry, ripe raspberry fruit, and a good amount of earthiness. What is earthiness? Think fresh mushrooms, fallen leaves, and truffles (the fungus, not the chocolate).
Another good choice would be a second Pinot Noir, the A to Z from Oregon ($18). It has a little more focused fruitagain, cherry and raspberry, but with a great smokiness that should be a perfect complement for pho’s anise and coriander fragrance.
At the top end, we’re going with 2003 Montevertine Pian de Ciampolo ($21). It used to be called Chianti Classico, but when the DOC (denominazione di origine controllata, the Italian government’s classification system) allowed Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to be included in the blend of Chianti Classico, Montevertine dropped the DOC. So it’s not officially Chianti Classico, it’s Chianti Classico pre-1982mainly Sangiovese, the dominant grape in Tuscany. Along with red cherry, raspberry fruit, it has a great leathery earthiness and a little acidity. This is not an over-the-top wine. It’s about subtlety, just like pho. Pho is the sum of its parts; each bit adds more dimension. The Pian de Ciampolo is the same animal, just in a bottle.
TANDOORI CHICKEN. Not especially tough, except that the spice mix can vary significantly from chef to chefone uses more cumin, another more turmeric. I don’t think any two tandoori chickens ever taste exactly the same.
Cheap Monkey: 2005 Mirone Macabeo ($7)
Modest Monkey: 2004 Domaine Gres St. Vincent Côtes du Rhone-Villages ($13)
Splurge Monkey: 2000 Domaine Emilian Gillet Macon-Villages ($23)
So what to drink? Something juicy and simple. The 2005 Mirone Macabeo from Spain ($7) evokes lemon, floral, and peach notes accented by a little white-pepper spiciness. Here, the acidity in the wine is important to balance the tanginess of the yogurt used in marinating the chicken.
The 2004 Domaine Gres St. Vincent Côtes du Rhone-Villages ($13), an unrefined and unfiltered red, shows wonderful bright fruit of red berries, earth, a touch of gaminess, spices, and terrific structure. It’s about 60 percent Grenache, the rest is Syrah. Its fruit and earthiness can counteract an especially spicy version of tandoori chicken.
Last but not least, the 2000 Domaine Emilian Gillet Macon-Villages ($23). From the southern part of Burgundy, this Macon is 100 percent Chardonnay, as are almost all white burgundies. But it’s not the oaky, buttery vanilla California cookie-cutter swill that weighs down good wine liststhis untamed spirit has vitality in the form of Fuji apple and spiced pear. Great minerality balanced by evident, but not overbearing, acidity. Again, fruit here is a counterpoint to spice, and the acidity again will match the yogurt twang.
KIMCHEE. At last, a challenge! Sour. Salty. Spicy. Painfully spicy. What could possibly match such a behemoth of flavor?
Cheap Monkey: 2002 Koster-Wolf Müller
Modest Monkey: 2004 Charles Koehly Saint Hippolyte Riesling ($18)
Splurge Monkey: 2001 Domaine de Gour de Chaule Gigondas ($29)
At first glance, something sweet would make sense. Not dessert-wine sweet, but with a slight bit of sugar to cut through the spice, and good acidity to match the sourness of the cabbage. Something like the complex and flavorful 2002 Koster-Wolf Müller Thurgäu ($11) from Rheinhessen, Germany. Generally mild, aromatic and pleasant, with a touch of spicy muscat-like flavor and aroma.
Less sweet but more complex is the 2004 Charles Koehly Saint Hippolyte Riesling ($18). It’s crisp and dry, with almost no residual sugar, but the abundance of fruit on the nosegreen apples and tangerine zestgives the illusion of sweetness. Plus, it’s clean on the palate, with a minerality that creates a bit of harmony.
Or you could go in absolutely the opposite direction and pick a big, burly, full-bodied red that can compete with the sour, spicy shock of kimchee. In that vein, there’s the 2001 Domaine de Gour de Chaule Gigondas ($29), a full, deep-ruby red from the southern Rhone Valley with ripe, spicy aromas of blueberry and currant, complicated by notes of menthol and dark chocolate. It shows very good intensity and breadth, and offers a restrained sweetness and strong garrigue soil tones. The big fruit and structure, along with the rustic nature of this non-certified organic Gigondas give it enough punch to go a few rounds with all that sour spiciness. In fact, you’d better make sure your kimchee is up to the challenge! (Hint: Leave it in the fridge for an extra month or two. Like good wine, kimchee grows better with age.)
Got an Asian meal in mind that needs a good wine? E-mail “Drunken Monkey” for help.