One of the coolest parts about writing about wine is that I get to tell people I write about wine. Regardless of how the preceding conversation has gone, no matter how clumsy or bumbling I may have been, as soon as I mention that I write a wine blog, I get taken just a little bit more seriously.
I’m much more of a wine geek than the sophisticate they may have momentarily imagined dining on caviar and not deigning to drink anything less than Latour.
Honestly? I’ve never had a sip of Chateau Latour (hardly unbelievable given the minimum $1,000 price tag) and I’m not really one for caviar. Oh sure, I probably spend more than most on my day-to-day wine but that’s just because I’d rather imbibe those calories blissfully than guiltily and, well, I am attempting a wine blog…
But as far as food goes (another area in which I am queen of the nerds), I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: some of my favorite food, for which I have an incessant craving, is best served in a Styrofoam container.
That’s right — I’m talking take-out. So what better way to marry my two great culinary loves than to pair great wine with greasy goodness? You may think it doesn’t make sense to waste good wine on cheap food, but, oh, the pleasures that await you!
I realize that pairing wine with food often presents a daunting task for even the most devoted of oenophiles. It’s hard enough understanding wine all by itself without trying to match it, like a puzzle piece, with its perfect mate — the dish that will enhance the wine and bring out its best flavors while, in turn, being elevated by its alcoholic companion.
My favorite strategy for pairing food with wine comes from Karen MacNeil, author of the celebrated Wine Bible. Macneil suggests that you use wine as a mirror and hold it up against the more pronounced qualities of a dish. Pair spicy with spicy, sweet with sweet, earthy with earthy, and so forth.
If you run into a flavor profile that doesn’t quite have its match in a wine, look to texture — is it rich? You can match it with an equally rich wine and languish in velvety mouth-feels or you can pair it with something bright and full of flavor that will match the intensity of your meal but cut through the richness with some acidity. This is one of the reasons that lobster pairs so well with chardonnay and salmon goes so swimmingly with pinot noir.
For each of my favorite take-out dishes, I’ll go through why I pair each dish with its particular wine and hope to enlighten you through example. Once you’ve successfully paired something as low-brow as Panda Express, there’s no turning back from full-on wine geekdom.
Pad Thai with Tofu: Voignier
Great pad thai is tangy, savory, and a little sweet. The tamarind-based sauce gives it that fruity acidic taste that leaves us hungering for more. Voignier is a grape that is often described as “luscious” and has a characteristic honey aroma. The grape is inherently low in acidity which makes it a perfect match for pad thai, already so tangy, and often has flavors of ripe peaches, tropical fruits (ahem, tamarind), and fresh orange peel.
Try: 2008 K Vintners, $20
Yellow Curry with Shrimp: Grüner Veltliner
Yellow curry is sweet and delicately spiced. It’s the mildest of Thai curries and the most redolent of coconut milk. The complex and delicate broth requires a wine that accents the spice without overpowering. Grüner Veltliner is an Austrian white grape that yields a sweet wine that is noted for the characteristic rush of white pepper on the finish. The combination of sweet and spicy makes it an ideal match for Thai curries.
Try: 2008 Hiedler, $16
Pad Kee Mao with Chicken: Savignon Blanc
Aka “drunken noodles,” this dish is one of my personal favorites among Thai cuisine. You get spice from the chilies, an herby fresh flavor from the mounds of Thai basil that the noodles are tossed with at the very end, and the grassy flavor that comes from bell peppers only cooked slightly. Sauvignon Blanc, especially from New Zealand, with its bright acidity and grassy herbaceous notes is a perfect match for this bold noodle dish.
Try: 2008 Jules Taylor, $15
Chicken Tikka Masala: Côtes du Rhône
The dish is rich, creamy, sweet, and redolent of spices without being spicy. The wine has a good deal of sweetness and spice as well — with a rich, smooth mouth feel that complements the creaminess of the sauce.
Try: 2008 Domaine Alary, $16
Lamb Vindaloo: Dolcetto d’Alba
Another tamarind-based spicy dish, but this time with gamey lamb and heavy heat, this dish calls for something with a lot of fruit, good spice, and a brightness to match the tang of the tamarind. Dolcetto is one of my favorite grapes — I’m tempted to describe it as the Beaujolais of Italy. It’s a lighter wine with nice acidity, lots of fruit like raspberries and cherries, and a spicy finish.
Try: 2006 Moccagatta, $16
Sweet and Sour Chicken: Albarino
Ah, the old standby. Sweet and fruity one minute and pungent the next, this is a great opportunity to get creative. Albarino has a zing to it that makes me love it for sweet and sour chicken — it also has a tendency toward sweetness and an almost unbearable lightness that lets it shimmer on your tongue instead of weigh down your taste buds.
Try: 2006 Morgadio, $13
Beef with Broccoli: Bordeaux
This traditional favorite is salty soy-goodness at its best. The good kind will also have a nice ginger and garlic flavor that is well matched by this rich red wine. The wine has notes of ginger, very soft tannins, and a velvety mouth feel that makes it easy to drink.
Try: 2005 Chateau Guiraud-Cheval-Blanc, $14
Moo Shu Pork: Priorat
Priorat is the name of the region in Spain that makes robust and earthy red wines that go well with Moo Shu Pork. Look for a blend that features syrah as the dominant blending grape — it will lend a gamey, almost funky ,quality to the wine that will accentuate the woodsy mushrooms in this dish.
Try: 2007 Joan D’Anguera La Planella, $19