Starting at about North Druid Hills Road and heading northeast for about 15 or so miles on Buford Highway, you can see restaurant signs in Spanish, Malay, Korean, Vietnamese and Bengali. This may be a bit intimidating for the casual diner, but it’s downright terrifying for wine lovers.
It’s not the language barrier or items such as tacos de lengua (cow tongue) that give diners and winers pause. It’s not really even the fact that these multifarious cuisines don’t boast a wine culture. Whether it’s Korean barbecue or chiles rellenos or southeast Asian vindaloo, the one trait many of the foods along Buford Highway share is fiery, hot spices.
One of the easiest paradigms of wine pairing is to pick a wine from the region where the food comes from. That’s easy if the dish is beef Bourguignon (a red Burgundy will do nicely) or Alsatian-style coq au vin (a dry, luscious Alsatian riesling is just the ticket). But what if you’re at the table at Panahar (a Bangladeshi restaurant located at 3375 Buford Highway, Atlanta) and a smiling Mirza Ameen, the owner, arrives with the house specialty: lamb vindaloo? One doesn’t find too many wineries within 3,000 miles of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.
Tropical countries ringing the Indian Ocean can’t grow grapes for wine, but they would if they could. That’s clear from the lime condiment that accompanies the spicy dishes at Panahar. Like a lime, wine is blessed with acidity. This is particularly true for white wines. Crisp, white wine provides much-needed relief from peppery fire and it also brings a little more to the table than a simple piece of citrus can.
But which crisp, white wine? There are a lot to choose from. For many years, my go-to wine to foil spicy dishes has been Austrian grüner veltliner with its brisk acidity and nuances of lime and lime zest. Dry Australian rieslings also do the trick for the similar reasons. I’ve long enjoyed Alsatian gewürztraminers, which also douses flaming tongues with a touch of soothing, honey-like sweetness.
Recently at Panahar, I uncorked a chenin blanc from Vouvray, a village in France’s Loire Valley. (One nice thing about Panahar is they encourage guests to bring their own beverages as their beer and wine offerings are meager. Also, there’s no corkage fee.) I think I may be on to something with the Vouvray.
I like my vindaloo made non-American style, which means it’s hotter than Sofia Vergara in a red mini skirt. My wife, Eleanore, and I brought along the 2010 Domaine Pichot Vouvray. It had an herbal, almost cilantro-like quality and an earthiness that parallels the abundant cinnamon, cumin and cardamom spices of the vindaloo. Brimming with bright acidity, it was a great match.
So be not afraid of cuisines outside of your comfort zone, especially those that lean heavily on piquant spices. Mada hala masalayukta khabara sange mahana. (Bengali for: wine is great with spicy food.)
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.