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Pairing Wine with Ethnic Cuisine

Pairing Wine with Ethnic Cuisine
Much could be written about the explosion of interest in matching wine to ethnic cuisines, such as Chinese, Mexican, Indian and Pacific Rim. These cuisines did not evolve with wine and, for many years, no one really bothered to experiment and find out which wines worked. For the most part, ethnic food outside its country of origin was served with beer or soft drinks, not with wine. Now, however, some of the most imaginative food and wine pairing is happening in this area.

Chinese
Within China itself there are four basic cuisines, each of which has several subcuisines, so Chinese food cannot be dealt with in detail here. In general, look for a big spicy wine, such as a Gewürztraminer, a grassy Sauvignon Blanc or an off-dry Riesling; an unoaked Australian or California Chardonnay will also work. With pork and chicken dishes, a fruity young Zinfandel or Beaujolais from France can be a surprisingly good choice.

Fusion or Pacific Rim
A popular approach to creative cooking in countries bordering the Pacific, from the western United States to eastern Australia, this dynamic blend of Asian, Pacific island and European-influenced styles is evolving into what some people are calling the first truly international cuisine. Because of the eclectic selection of spices and other seasonings, wine selections should be made on a dish-by-dish basis. Let your imagination run wild and consider seldom-met wines, such as Vinho Verde from Portugal, Viognier from Virginia or California, and acidic and delicious Finger Lakes Riesling from New York state.

Indian
As with China, there are several different Indian cuisines. In general, the more aromatic wines are best. For whites, try Gewürztraminer, off-dry Riesling or Pinot Gris. A sparkling brut rosé, if not too dry, would also be a good choice. Red wines, such as an Australian Shiraz or California Syrah, can work well against the strong, spicy flavors of many Indian dishes. A young, zesty Zinfandel would also be a good choice.

Japanese
The cuisine of Japan doesn't have the massive heat of some Asian cuisines, which makes it seemingly more open to wine pairings. However, the subtle, often salty sauces and flavorings can be a challenge. Go for off-dry Rieslings from Washington or California, semisweet white Zinfandel or sparkling wine.

Mexican
True Mexican food (not the searingly hot border food) is more open to wine pairings than many people believe. Red wines are often a good choice with Mexican food, especially young Zinfandels and Merlots from California. Light Pinot Noir from Oregon or the Carneros region of California can be quite pleasing. With mole chili-based sauces (witha hint of chocolate), try a young Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Southeast Asian (Cambodian, Malaysian, Indonesian and Vietnamese)
With the exception of Indonesian, these cuisines have fairly subtle seasonings, with rare explosions of heat. Unoaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, young Zinfandels and Merlots are good choices.

Southwestern U.S./Tex-Mex
The spicy Tex-Mex style of cooking can be tricky to match with wine, but classic Southwestern cuisine is full of complex flavors. In general, the same choices as for Mexican food apply here.

Thai
Growing in popularity, Thai food features such exotic seasonings as lemongrass, galangal (a relative of gingerroot), hot chilies and rich coconut milk, which make it one of the most difficult of Asian cuisines to match with wine. However, a good place to start would be an Oregon Pinot Gris, a spicy Alsatian Gewürztraminer, a fresh unoaked California Sauvignon Blanc or an Italian Pinot Blanc.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Guides, The Wine Guide, (Time-Life Books, 1999).