Pairing wine and food is a special kind of magic. There are some pairings that are so natural they seem true in all situations: chevre and Sancerre, or foie gras with Sauternes, for example. But the wine world is a world of taste and opinion, colored by layers of context. That same foie gras accompanied by a berry compote might not pair so well with a Sauternes. If your steak is served as thinly sliced tartare, you might want to steer clear of a Napa cabernet and break open a Beaujolais instead. Getting people to expand their tastes is difficult, though. Foie gras carries with it levels of assumption and interpretation as nuanced as that of a green chile cheeseburger. If I’m at a summertime barbecue in downtown Santa Fe, I’m probably going to be sipping on Dos Equis lager and that is right for where I am and who I’m with. If I’m at a fine dining restaurant with an exciting wine list and diverse food options, however, it’s a different (much geekier) story entirely.
After all, a talented chef will not send out a plate of food that is not already balanced. What is the role of wine in that context? I like to think of the wine as the frame of a picture: The purpose of the wine is to accompany the dish rather than contrast or heighten it. It helps to think first of the structure of the food, the weight of a dish, the acid and sugar structure, the potential saltiness and the spiciness. This is especially helpful when pairing wine with cuisines outside the Western European tradition or dealing with flavors and meals that were not made with wine in mind.
There is an unfortunate tendency to describe wine pairing with global cuisine using broad and reductive terms. For example, riesling with everything spicy. Vietnamese food? Riesling. Indian food? Riesling. Thai food? Riesling. Now, I could chair as president of the riesling fan club, but to reduce the diversity of over half the world of food to pairing with only one white wine counters the level of imagination and excitement that this pairing opportunity brings to the table.
I get it—the instinct, when dealing with anything hot, is to break out a wine with a little bit of residual sugar to tame the heat, and it also tends to pair well with the hidden sweetness you find in many Asian dishes. But just as there are different kinds of acidity and sweetness and tannin, so too are there different kinds of spice. Not all Asian food can be reduced to simple heat. Ginger is different than chile is separate from soy sauce. Why should the answer to all of them be the same?
For example, I think riesling with nước chấm sauce doesn't work at all; it really enhances the salty fishiness of the sauce and neutralizes the diversity of flavors that I love in riesling. I would prefer an old vine verdejo instead, an outwardly neutral Spanish grape that possesses a refreshing crispness that doesn't compete with fish sauce-influenced flavors. Nisia, a wine producer from Rueda, Spain, makes an excellent choice, and it retails for about $18. It's surprising that a Spanish grape would complement Vietnamese food, but it speaks to the freedom to explore the diverse options that make pairing wine and food so exciting in the first place.
With that in mind, here are a few other ideas for outlier pairings. I usually focus on the dominant flavor of a dish. So even with steak or pork, I might pick a white wine over a red, or vice versa. Are your scallops wok-fried in a black pepper and soy sauce? Try a Napa cabernet with some meat on its bones. Round Pond makes an excellent example called Kith & Kin that retails for $36. (Go ahead and fight me over it, I love it.)
When I'm dealing with a curry that is influenced largely by ginger, I love chenin blanc as an accompaniment. Domaine des Baumard from Savenniéres, France, makes an excellent example for $24. But if your dish does have some heat to it, a Vouvray, like the Dilettante from Catherine and Pierre Breton, at $30 a bottle might be a nice option too.
If I'm working with an umami-heavy dish with lots of soy, I move towards a syrah. Not necessarily a northern Rhone or an Australian shiraz, although it depends on the other content of the dish. I prefer a softer American-style syrah like the one from Jaffurs Wine Cellars in Santa Barbara County that retails for $31.
None of these are terribly expensive wines, but they aren't cheap either. It wouldn't be wine pairing if there wasn't a little bit of a gamble thrown in to make it fun.
To really parse different styles of cuisine is to play with some very unusual and inspired pairings. The only way to explore it is to use your imagination, open your mind, trust your gut, eat many different kinds of food and drink lots and lots of wine.