This year’s Retail Challenge was inspired by our Bay Area friends in the wine trade who often head out to the Richmond District for BYOB regional Chinese dinners. We chose a Sichuan restaurant, Spicy Queen, and asked six retailers to each bring a white and a red to pair with dinner. The price limit: $20 per bottle.
But all of them were eager to put their choices to the test, as, asked if they fielded requests from customers for wine recommendations for Chinese food, the retailers responded, practically in unison, “All the time.” (Except for Andy Booth, who gets more questions about wine for paella at the Spanish Table.) It’s often a difficult question to answer without knowing what kind of Chinese food they are having, says Lee Madueno of Flatiron Wines & Spirits—though, at Gemini Bottle Co., Dominique Henderson finds her customers just want to know what to drink with dumplings.
Sichuan cuisine might be one of the more difficult choices for wine, as it’s known for its heat. That heat comes from two sources, called ma-la: the round and numbing sensation from Sichuan peppercorns, plus straight-ahead heat from local chilies. So before we even started eating, we tasted the 12 wines blind; four were sparkling, and most all the selections held to styles that were mineral driven and low in alcohol.
Then the food began to arrive. We began with a plate of cucumbers that looked to be cooling but set our mouths ablaze. We experimented with texture, from fried chicken to fish in boiling broth, as well as with different main ingredients, like eggplant, lamb and pork. Ma-la was the leitmotif that ran through all the dishes. Like the song you can’t get out of your head, the question remained, “How would the wines stack up against all those chilies?”
In the end, the group chose a favorite from each retailer, as well as three winners overall, two whites and one red. The real surprise, however, was how well many different wines went with our spicy food.
A blend of brachetto and barbera from Piedmont, Italy, vinified and aged in stainless steel, this was dubbed “the value wine of the value wines” by our retailers. Imported by Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, CA
It’s always fun trying to think of exciting pairings for people and to find ways to bring in the Old World and make it more fun. The Old World can often be put into a more snooty category. This wine is light enough to be refreshing and it’s just so easy…an out-of-the-box idea for a light and refreshing red.
“I am all about aromatics and it’s hard to get that in a red without the wine being sweet. This is nicely balanced, both on its own and with the food.” —Dominique Henderson, Gemini Bottle Co.
Sorbara is a relatively light variety of Lambrusco; this one is estate grown by Mauro Buffagni and made in the Charmat method, so it’s shipped fresh throughout the year. Imported by Oliver McCrum Wines, San Francisco, CA
“The bubbles are actually kind of calming for the spiciness.” —Brian Loehr, Arlequin Wine Merchant
Palacio de Bornos Rueda Verdejo Frizzante $15
This verdejo, at 5.5 percent alcohol, is a light white with a slight sweetness and effervescence. Imported by Kysela Père et Fils, Winchester, VA
“The bubbles, the zestiness—it’s so quaffable with the spice.” —Dominique Henderson, Gemini Bottle Co.
A crowd favorite, this rich Muscadet comes from a parcel of vines planted in 1930, on clay and silica soils over granite. It’s farmed under biodynamics and spontaneously fermented in stainless-steel tanks, where it rests for seven months on the lees. Imported by Louis/Dressner, NY
“The Muscadet was my favorite of the twelve. A bunch of us thought it was chenin—because who would think Muscadet, first of all? You think Muscadet for oysters, not for spicy Chinese food. That was, without a doubt, the surprise and success of the evening.” —Andy Booth, The Spanish Table
This riesling grows in Los Alamos, on an ancient sand dune ten miles from the Pacific. It was pressed without sulfur, settled, then decanted and allowed to spontaneously ferment in stainless steel.
“When I first tasted it, on its own, it was so floral and aromatic—it was so gewurzy. Now, it’s so mellow.” —Josiah Baldivino, BayGrape
“The riesling is just so easy to drink and such a nice refreshment after all the spice.” —Maeve Decouvelaere, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant
Matthew Rorick tends vines on schist soils over limestone at 2,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Foothills, farming organically. He foot-treads his albariño, picpoul, verdelho and chardonnay, coferments them spontaneously in open-top vats, then ages the wine in neutral oak barrels.
“I just knew it was a weird blend but it extinguished the heat without being sweet. It was a sophisticated extinguisher.” —Josiah Baldivino, BayGrape
“It surprises me how much the wine powers out the spice. With the spiciness, it brings my palate back to life, resets it to zero.” —Brian Loehr, Arlequin Wine Merchant
“It coats it and calms it and then it’s like bam! The fire comes back.” —Andy Booth, The Spanish Table