The sweet spot: Rediscover sweet wines with spicy food

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Thai food pairs beautifully with sweet wines, but pairing dishes with bottles can be difficult in restaurants. Wine expert Evan Williams recommends making your own pairings by ordering your food to go. Photo: Elli Williams Thai food pairs beautifully with sweet wines, but pairing dishes with bottles can be difficult in restaurants. Wine expert Evan Williams recommends making your own pairings by ordering your food to go. Photo: Elli Williams

As a wine writer, and a peddler of the juice too, I’ve often felt the urge to get defensive when it comes to the much-maligned “tall bottles”: German and Austrian Riesling, Alsatian Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gris, Gewurtztraminer, and sometimes even Muscat. The amount of visceral and intellectual satisfaction that I’ve pulled from these kinds of wines rivals any other stylistic category, yet whenever I try to get people to take some home, nine out of 10 will stonewall me. So, what gives?

Well, I suppose it’s easy to place blame on those big blue bottles from the ‘90s, wrapped in striking packages that held unbalanced, cloying, one-note wines inside. Believe me, I’ve done my fair share of blaming. The preponderance of these wines, which obviously sought to cash in on Americans’ (and others’) sweet tooths, did a tremendous disservice to a generation of wine drinkers’ perceptions of Riesling and its kindred varietals that we still battle today. True, there are always good and bad examples of every style of wine, but few seem to have created such a misdirection that it soured countless consumers on anything with a little residual sugar.

As with any style, though, the key lies in balance. The great white wines of Germany, Austria, and Alsace never lost theirs, but as with the oak backlash in California, they were unfairly lumped in with the bad apples. And then, a few years ago, Riesling started surging again around the world, as though a new generation was discovering it for themselves. Will history repeat itself? Not if we can help it.

The balance and harmony between sugar and acidity is something akin to a dance—or, perhaps more accurately, a swordfight. This is true of any style of wine—whenever you taste a wine and it seems “flat” and muted, it’s likely because of both low sugar and acid levels. These are the elements that create interest on the palate; they bring electricity and depth and life to a wine, but just as an overly-acidic wine can pounce on your palate like Sour Patch Kids, a cloyingly sweet wine without the acid on the other side of the ring can leave you with, well, a bad taste in your mouth.

Our charge, then, is to find the balanced examples, whether they’re sweet or not-so-sweet. On the nose, sugar is not always apparent, but when it splashes across your tongue, don’t be afraid of it. The acidity oftentimes plays cleanup on the finish, and some of the best examples go from a slick, rich front to a bone-dry, clean back end. Where to start? Riesling from Germany is a perfect place to start, with such classic powerhouses as Donnhoff, Monchhoff, and Dr. Loosen making wines of impeccable balance and depth. For Alsatian Riesling, Ge-
wurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (nothing like the Italian “grigio,” by the way), Albert Mann, Ernest Burn, and Zind-Humbrecht deserve your undivided attention. And in Austria, look no further than Nikolaihof for some of the most brilliant wines on the planet.

Now, what to do with these wines, then? The other thing that has held them back is that so few people really seem to utilize them to their full potential when it comes to pairing with dishes. Well, the first time you pair a balanced Spatlese Riesling with good spicy food, you fully understand what you’ve been missing. Spicy food is, unsurprisingly, one of the most difficult types to pair wine with—the spice tends to overwhelm, or at best, clash inelegantly with almost any red (often due to the tannins), and many dry whites are not up to the task either. What you need is striking acidity, as well as palate-coating residual sugar. Hmm, I wonder where would we find wines with acidity, and sugar, and no tannins?

For the pairing, nothing compares to Thai food. Most restaurants will let you choose your own level of spice (as a general rule, stay away from “Thai hot,” as no amount of Pinot Gris or Auslese Reisling will put out that fire!), and their traditional herbs and spices really work perfectly with Rieslings and the like. Now, we may be a relatively small city, but there are actually plenty of options for Thai food: Downtown Thai, Lime Leaf, Thai 99 and Monsoon are all close by, as well as Thai Siam Takeout, hidden on a country road in Arrington (down Route 29, south of Lovingston). It’s a trek, but well worth it. Try the spring rolls and beef drunken noodles (with a medium spice level), open a bottle of the Monchhoff 2012 Riesling Spatlese ‘Mosel Slate’ ($30) with it, and you will be transported to another dimension of wine-food pairing. The plush fruit and almost oily texture of the Riesling bounces off the basil and peppers, and your palate will never be the same.

For something a bit closer to home, Downtown Thai’s green curry (try it with chicken or seafood) can’t be beat. Pair that rich coconut-driven curry with the intense (but dry) Alsatian Pinot Blanc (2010, $20) from Ernest Burn. The bright, crisp (but not too light) wine cuts through the milky coconut curry sauce, and the lively, spicy finish will linger for as long as you can wait before taking another sip.

What’s your favorite dish to pair with sweet wines?

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