Wine Director Mia Van de Water heads up the bottle list at North End Grill in New York, Danny Meyer's New American Battery Park City gem lauded for its excellent rendition of squab with braised peas as well as its sticky bun ice cream sundae. At NEG, Van de Water has amassed a top notch selection of wines from around the world, with a focus on vintages and value offerings. Below, she elaborates on the intricacies of pairing wine with spicy food.
Q: "What kind of wine goes well with Chinese food, especially Szechwan? Hopefully something more interesting than plum wine."
That’s a large and multi-faceted question you’re asking, as there are practically as many styles of Chinese food out there as there are styles of wine! Let’s break it down a little:
If you’re looking at Szechuan, you gotta think about the heat. The hallmark of that cuisine is the use of peppers—both the fiery hot red guys and the floral, black peppercorns. There are a couple of key things to look for when shopping for wine to drink with food that carries that kind of spice, and the big ones are acidity and sweetness (literally, sugar + spice equals everything nice). Both elements are going to mitigate the fire starting on your tongue, with acidity working nicely with three-pepper dishes and sweetness coming in to hit a home run on the extra spicy stuff. Fortunately, nearly all wines that have a little sweetness (what the wine geeks call "residual sugar") tend to also have high acidity to balance that out and keep the wine crisp and refreshing.
For those of you that like your Szechuan with less than five alarm bells, dry Riesling is awesome—either something juicy and easy like Barmès-Buecher Riesling Tradition ($19) or a more serious example, like Dönnhoff Riesling GG Dellchen ($49), which will have all the exotic florals like jasmine and saffron but with more body and this profound, celery-salt minerality (those initials GG stand for Grosses Gewächs, or Great Growth: basically, the wine is guaranteed to be dry, and awesome, and somewhat of a splurge). Or you could always head west into Spain and pick up some Txakolina Rosé; seaside vineyards outside of San Sebastian produce super bright, extra crisp wines with delicate red berries and a hint of sea spray—Ameztoi Rubentis Rosé ($18) is always a favorite.
Riesling and spicy food is so pervasive an idea as to be borderline cliché at this point, but for a very simple reason: it just works.
If, however, you are going for chili gold, and nothing will satisfy but ultimate spice, you want to ramp up the sugar in your wine to cool that burning in your throat. Riesling and spicy food is so pervasive an idea as to be borderline cliché at this point, but for a very simple reason: it just works. Check out something from the Ayler Kupp vineyard from the Saar—delicate white flowers, candied green apple, that ultra-classic German smokiness that goes perfectly with peppers. Or if you’re looking for something unconventional and totally special, seek out a bottle of Yves Cuilleron Condrieu Les Ayguets ($89); a late harvest Viognier from one of the greatest producers around, it is rife with tropical fruits and loaded with fragrant, perfumed florals (rose, lavender, orchid and gardenia). It will blow your mind and quite possibly will ruin you for all other wine to come.
Either way, above all, avoid high alcohol wines. The closer that percentage ticks up to 14 percent (or, heaven forbid, higher), the more likely that the pepper in your mouth will make that glass of wine taste like rubbing alcohol.
If you’ve got a less regional menu in mind (especially if you’re more in the mood for "classic" Chinese like Kung Pao Chicken or Sweet and Sour Pork), you don’t have to stick quite as hard to the "high acid high sugar" rule, but given the pervasive sweetness of much Chinese cuisine (whether it be the sweetness of sautéed garlic or that glaze on your sesame chicken), and the use of aromatic herbs, it’s never a bad idea.
Other fun wines to try are Dirler-Cadé Gewürztraminer ($18) from Alsace (rosewater, lychee nut, papaya; think Kung Pao Chicken), Geil Scheurebe ($12) from the Rheinhessen in Germany (tangerine, ruby red grapefruit, white melon; perfect for any of those sweet glazed chickens—orange, sesame, General Tso), or if you’ve just got a giant plate of garlic-sautéed bok choy (arguably the best move at all times), some Ott Grüner Veltliner ($18) from the Wagram in Austria (sugar snap peas, white pepper, celery salt—downright savory).