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The New Rieslings: What Wine to Pair with Asian Food

Drink-induced revelations often happen while someone’s balancing on a bar stool, trying to read neon through a shot glass. But there’s no neon at Benu, the fine-dining restaurant in SoMa, and I’m sober when I lift that cordial glass. Chef Corey Lee’s faux shark’s fin soup has already built Benu’s reputation, but nothing prepared me for the drink served with it: a 1968 Madeira.

In San Francisco, we know our Asian food, but our pairings haven’t kept pace with our insatiable appetites. Reisling has remained the default since around 1992, when renegade winemaker Randall Grahm cleverly branded Pacific Rim Reisling with pictures of sushi. Wine director Mark Ellenbogen did his part to further this when he crafted the wine list for The Slanted Door.

Flash-forward to today: What should we be drinking when our comfort foods extend to pork banh mi and Korean tacos? For answers, it’s helpful to look to the two fastest-growing wine markets on the planet—China and India. Wine isn’t a novelty in India, where hot-climate varietals like Syrah have been cultivated and enjoyed since at least the 17th century. China might be a more recent arrival to the party, but it’s already out-drinking India by volume of wine sold. According to findings from VinExpo Asia Pacific, about 85 percent of the wines sold in China in 2010 were big reds—French Bordeaux and Burgundies and some Australian Shiraz. And they’re not necessarily having it with pizza. As Hong Kong sommelier Jeannie Cho Lee, a Master of Wine at the South China Morning Post, suggests, tannic reds can stand up to the umami and bitter flavors key to many Chinese regional cuisines.

In San Francisco, we needn’t search across oceans for wines that complement Asian-inspired food. I return to Benu to meet Yoon Ha, the sommelier skewing the curve for creative wine lists that heighten Asian flavors. I’m looking for some inspired, but practical, suggestions for Bay Area takeout and food trucks.

I also want to know about that Madeira pairing: Who goes to Portugal circa 1968 for a soup course? “Look,” he explains. “I was raised in a non-wine culture, in Seoul, Korea. I had to learn everything. Nothing is innate.” Point taken, and challenge accepted.

Pork Banh Mi
“Cilantro is not easy because it can make some reds go soapy or vegetal. A Languedoc Rosé would brighten up the flavors and play up the roasted pork.”
Our pick: 2009 Mas-Des-Dames Coteaux du Languedoc Rosé ($12 at D&M Wine & Liquor, 2200 Fillmore St. at Sacramento, 415-346-1325, dandm.com)
Salt and Pepper Calamari
“Go with Fino sherry, which has a saline quality and can handle the high acidity if you add lemon. Instead of fighting the citrus, it'll shake hands and hang out awhile.”
Our pick: El Maestro Sierra Fino ($15 at K&L Wine Merchants, 638 Fourth St. at Brannan, 415-896-1734, klwines.com)
Tandoori chicken
"With charred notes, a little cumin, and maybe some yogurt, I'd say a Pinot Gris from Alsace. It has the right body, a hint of sweetness, and spicy flavors."
Our pick: 2008 Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Alsace ($23 at Solano Cellars, 1580 Solano Ave. at Ordway, Berkeley, 510-525-0379, solanocellars.com)
Korean tacos
"Here, Southern Rhône blends such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape can have a tremendous application because they have such broad and rounded flavors without unwarranted tannins and high alcohol. A blend with too much Syrah can be rigid."
Our pick: 2007 Chante Cigale Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($25 at K&L Wine Merchants, 638 Fourth St. at Brannan, 415-896-1734, klwines.com)
Ha gow (shrimp dumplings)
"A dry Sylvaner from Franconia will pick up the woody notes of the bamboo shoots in the dumplings. Plus it brings its own smokiness and works well with ginger."
Our pick: 2008 Hans Wirsching Sylvaner Dry Estate ($18 at Ferry Plaza Wine Merchants, One Ferry Building, 415-391-9400, fpwm.com)
Sashimi
"Fatty tunas dipped in soy sauce work well with medium-bodied, old red Burgundies. The glutamates of the soy are pulled right into those flavors."
Our pick: 2006 Jean-Pierre Charton Mercurey “Vielles Vignes” ($22 at PlumpJack Wines, 3201 Fillmore St. at Greenwich, 415-346-9870, plumpjack.com)