Part 6: Some Like It Hot
On most Western dining tables, dessert wines are only ever pulled out of the wine closet to accompany a gooey, caramelized slice of Tarte Tatin or a chocolate-drenched mound of profiteroles at the end of a Very Serious Meal. Since few of us eat Very Serious Meals more than three times a year, these luscious and satisfying wines are left to languish among the cobwebby bottles in the darkest corner of the wine cellar. Their salvation lies, in my opinion, in matching them with Asian cuisine.
The silky textures and concentrated fragrances of dessert wines are more intriguing when paired with main courses that include sweet flavors, than when they have to compete against the overwhelming richness of desserts. In Asian dishes that include in their ingredients coconut milk, fresh or dried fruits, chutney, teriyaki or hoisin sauce, as well as a liberal use of sugar, these luscious, high-alcohol wines are given a chance to show their versatility.
Sweet foods tend to make a dry wine seem, at best, drier, or, at worst, thin and sour. Of course, the level of sweetness in a dish varies. The basic rule to remember is that the wine must be as sweet as the dish it is meant to accompany, if not sweeter.
On the light side of sweet, you will find Moscato d’Asti, which also has the advantage – for some – of being low in alcohol, around 5 percent. Asti Spumante and other demi-sec sparkling wines can add a lively dimension to the dish’s flavor. Medium-sweet chenin blanc, gewürztraminer, riesling and demi-sec Vouvray are very versatile choices. With a dish like Sweet Pilau, which includes a healthy dollop of sugar and raisins, you may want to try a richly sweet wine, such as Moscatel de Setubal from Portugal and Moscatel de Valencia from Spain, as well as the plethora of muscats from France. Look out for eiswein from Germany and Austria, and ice wine from Canada: these are extremely sweet and rich, but have zippier acidity. Words to look for on a wine label that give you an indication of the degree of sweetness include: moelleux, doux, vendange tardive, vin de glacière, passito, recioto, late-harvest, noble rot, Botrytis cinerea, spätlese, auslese, beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese.
With a sweet and sour flavor combination it is essential that the sweet element should take the lead. It is wisest to choose lightly sweet wines with good body and firm acidity, such as Mosel riesling auslese and other off-dry rieslings, gewürztraminers and chenin blancs.
When the predominant sensation is fire-alarm chili heat, the wine choice becomes a very personal one: some like it hot, some do not. You must decide if you want to calm the fiery sensation down or crank it up. If, like me, you choose the former, then dessert wines will play an interesting – and, perhaps, unexpected – role. Their sweetness seems to enfold the chili heat, subduing it while at the same time combining with it to create new flavors. Try lightly sweet wines with relatively low alcohol, such as Austrian grüner veltliner spätlese, riesling spätlese from the Mosel region of Germany, or white zinfandel from California.
Highly alcoholic wines, sweet or otherwise, may accentuate the heat, as alcohol dissolves the chili and spreads its scorching sensation around the mouth. Sparkling wines, too, can pump up the volume by creating a lively tingle on the palate that echoes the prickly sensation of the chili. This doubles the sensual pleasure for chili fans.
A creamier style of sparkling wine that is sometimes overlooked by seekers of bubbles is known as satén in the Italian DOCG zone of Franciacorta and in France is often identified by the word crémant. These terms mean that the wine undergoes its second fermentation in bottle at a lower pressure than that used in fully sparkling wine. This gentler pressure creates fresh aromas and a soft, elegant, near-frothy mousse that adds an interesting textural dimension.
Ice-cold rosés are a good middle-of-the-road choice: their coldness may numb the palate but their weight in the mouth is appealing. Some of the most interesting come from the Italian regions of Puglia and Sicily, and from Spain and Portugal, where the indigenous grape varieties used to make them add a pleasingly saline flavor that mingles with the juicy fruit. Some not-so-obvious words you will find on a wine label that indicate a rosé include cerasuolo, chiaretto and vin gris.
If you are determined to drink a red wine, please go for a fruity and well-chilled one. Try a Beaujolais, a Bardolino, or a gamay or cabernet franc-based wine. However, some tasters prefer jammy reds based on cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. With chilis, it is truly a matter of personal taste.
SZECHUAN CHICKEN WITH DRIED CHILIS
1 lb (500g) chicken breasts, deboned and skinned
2 tsp sherry
½ tsp sesame oil
1 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp dark soy sauce
10 dried chilis
2 stalks scallions (spring onions)
Handful of cashew nuts
9 tbsp oil
8 slices ginger
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 tsp Szechuan pepper
¼ tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
Cut the chicken into 1-inch (2½-cm) cubes and marinate in the sherry, sesame oil and the light and dark soy sauces. Slit the chilies and discard the seeds. Remove the green tops of the scallions and slice the white bulb into 1-inch (2½-cm) lengths.
Heat 6 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan until it is smoking. Stir fry the chicken pieces till they are golden brown. Drain and set aside. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons oil and fry the ginger and garlic until they turn golden. Add the chilies and Szechuan pepper. Stir fry, making sure that the chilies do not burn. Include the chicken, cashew nuts, and the scallions. Stir, then season with salt and sugar to taste. Remove and serve with steamed rice.
Wine suggestions: The combination of dried chilis with garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce creates a powerful flavor, so it is a good idea to choose a wine with personality as well as a touch of sweetness. Chenin blanc-based moelleux or demi-sec wines, or Austrian or German gewürztraminer beerenauslese, will enfold the spices and hot sensations, creating interesting textural matches with the food. Fragrant, off-dry muscats also work well. Those of you who want to go for the burn can choose an inexpensive sparkling wine.
* For more information on grape varieties, click here.
** "Wine with Asian Food: New Frontiers in Taste," by Patricia Guy and Edwin Soon, is published by Tide-mark Press at $24.95.