IF YOU enjoy oriental cuisine as well as fine wine, you need not think of these two sensual pleasures as incompatible. While most of the wine lists at oriental restaurants are uninspired at best, I have found that certain wines do go well with oriental food--even the hot, sometimes fiery Sichuan-style cooking.
Some general guidelines: First, chilled white wine and rose' wines are much more enjoyable with oriental meals because they are refreshingly cold. Red wines just do not complement oriental food, and they lack the chilled, fresh, thirst-quenching aspects of a white or rose' wine. Second, the wine selection should be matched with the style of oriental cuisine. If you are serving a spicy Hunan/Sichuan dish, then a wine equivalent--a spicy, distinctive white wine of assertive character--is often the best choice. Lighter, less fiery dishes, such as Cantonese-style cooking, are more flexible, and do best with a number of white and rose' wines. Heavy Mandarin cooking tends to need crisp, very fresh, slightly acidic white wines to balance the cuisine's weightier texture. For deep-fried dishes, such as spring rolls or crispy fish, a delicate but lively white wine with a slight residual sweetness is often ideal.
If oriental food has one impossible match-up for wine, it is the sweet and sour dish. It does not do well with any type of wine that I have tried with it.
To come up with a list of top-rated wines for different types of oriental cuisine, I tried several oriental meals with different wines at restaurants and at home.
Some of the wines were simply wasted with oriental cuisine. French red bordeaux and California cabernet sauvignon showed no character whatever, tasted unusually poor and were described by several diners as "off." As good as these wines can be with beef or game, they taste foreign and metallic when matched with oriental food. Even the blander cooking of Canton threw these wines off.
French red burgundies fared little better. Although they are slightly sweeter than bordeaux in taste, the sweetness helped little, except with several of the Cantonese dishes.
The surprises were cha teauneuf-du-pape and Italian barolo. Both are among the fullest and most sturdy red wines produced in the world, and their distinctive peppery, spicy, rich character held up quite well against all types of oriental cuisine, even Sichuan and Hunan specialties. It was only the sweet and sour dishes that wreaked havoc on their character. (Interestingly, while these big red wines were successful with oriental food, the two big burly reds from California that were tasted, a petite syrah and a zinfandel, did quite poorly with the same food match-ups.)
While red wines such as cha teauneuf-du-pape and barolo can be considered for drinking with oriental cuisine, they are not especially recommended, particularly when there are some very fruity white and rose' wines that do the job better. They also provide the necessary thirst-quenching benefit that the big, robust red wines can't deliver.
Of the rose's tasted, the 1981 Simi Rose' of Cabernet Sauvignon ($4.49) was wonderfully fresh, tart and slightly sweet, and yet had plenty of lively acidity and fruitiness that was never quite overwhelmed by the different oriental foods. The rose' went especially well with deep-fried food, as well as the hot and spicy Sichuan courses. In fact, most diners agreed that Simi's Rose' of Cabernet Sauvignon was about the most versatile wine with all types of oriental food.
Several white wines that did poorly included chardonnay from California and French white burgundy. Regardless of whether the chardonnay was made in a heavy, oaky, full-bodied style with plenty of spicy vanilla character or a lighter, more austere, chablis-like style, the character of the chardonnay grape was generally obliterated by oriental cuisine--except for Cantonese cooking, where it was deemed an acceptable, but not recommended, wine.
The big hit in the dry white wine category was sauvignon blanc. Sauvignon blanc is, of course, grown with a great deal of success in California as well as in Bordeaux and the Lo ire Valley in France. Three sauvignon blancs from California that were tried were all eminently successful with all types of oriental dishes. A 1981 St. Clement ($9.99), a 1979 Robert Mondavi ($8.99) and a 1981 Parducci ($5.99) not only retained their subtle, herbaceous, earthy, fruity character, but offered a refreshing and lively beverage that complemented virtually all the oriental dishes.
Coincidentally, the biggest-selling wine at most oriental restaurants is the white bordeaux wine made from the sauvignon blanc grape called Wan Fu. We tried Wan Fu, and indeed it does represent a very palatable wine that holds up well against different oriental cuisines.
Not surprisingly, a number of diners enjoyed the drier French white bordeaux and agreed that it went well with oriental food (except, again, with the sweet-and-sour dishes). But when we tried a rich, honeyed, viscous, sweet French barsac or sauternes, also made from the sauvignon blanc as well as the semillon grapes, the combinations proved disastrous, with the sweetness of the French wines coming through as cloying and heavy.
In addition to sauvignon blanc, which most tasters rated as the top white wine choice for all types of oriental cuisine, the following wines did quite well: German rieslings made in the kabinett (dry) style, alsatian and California gewurztraminers and the dry and off-dry California chenin blancs and white rho nes, particularly white cha teauneuf-du-pape. Some tasters did believe, however, that gewurztraminer overpowered the most subtle oriental dishes and was not powerful enough to handle the Sichuan and Hunan offerings.
It is interesting to note that the most expensive wines of the world--French burgundies, bordeaux and California cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays--were the least compatible. WINE BRIEFS
When it comes to matching wine with food, special recognition must be given to the La Colline Restaurant on Capitol Hill. The innovative manager, Jim Hutton, has put together one of the city's most intelligent wine lists, offering a rare combination of skillfully picked fine wines at reasonable prices. In addition, La Colline has just installed a nitrogen wine dispenser for preserving wines. This allows fine, older bottles of wine to be served by the glass without the risk of oxidation's turning the wine to vinegar. Last week, I noted six well-chosen selections by the glass, ranging from Robert Mondavi's very fine 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon to two lovely 1976 Bordeaux, a Ducru Beaucaillou and a Neychevelle. The prices varied between $3 and $4 a glass. La Colline also features monthly multicourse tasting dinners. If last week's burgundy dinner and tasting (six very fine burgundies and six delicious courses for $75 a person) was any indication, La Colline is one of the great wine and food buys in town.