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As part of an ongoing series, several local sommeliers were asked to put their considerable expertise to use in coming up with a wine pairing for an affordable dish that readers might consider a regular part of their weekly rotation—in this installment, the red-curry duck with pineapple at Sala Thai. The wine had to retail for $12 or under and be available in local stores.
Ramon Narvaez, Marcel’s
J. Lohr, riesling, 2001, California
“Every dish has a different chemistry,” Narvaez is fond of saying. In analyzing the red-curry duck, he initially thought the pineapple would dominate, and pondered a couple of varietals. But when he tasted the curry, he realized that working with the meat would be better than pairing sweet with sweet. “The duck in this dish, it’s unctuous, it’s rich.” Eventually, though, he concluded that the richness of the duck was neutralized by the coconut milk, so he tried reckoning with the heat of the dish. He popped open a chardonnay: “Terrible. It was like chewing a piece of wood. All wood, all glycerin, and no flavor.” And the wine seemed to have no acidity, because “the pH of the pineapple is so high.” That revelation led to his determination to “fight acid with acid” with a J. Lohr California riesling—conveniently enough, available by the bottle at Sala Thai. He praises its “steely sort of mineral quality,” its “crispness,” and its “touch of sweetness in the nose—sort of an oyster-shell smell to it.” Narvaez believes it would pair equally well with an entree such as the scallops in butter-grapefruit sauce on chef Robert Wiedmaier’s menu at Marcel’s or another dish whose richness is mitigated with fruit—Thanksgiving turkey with cranberry sauce.
Tom Power, Corduroy
Two Brothers Big Tattoo White, riesling, 2003, Germany
Power tried the J. Lohr riesling, too, and was surprised it didn’t please him. “Usually, I like the petrolly aspect of riesling, but I didn’t like the way that petrolly aspect worked, in this case, with the coconut.” For him, it was not any single ingredient, but, rather, three competing qualities that he had to contend with in arriving at a match: “spice and fat and coconut.” Like Narvaez, Power expected the gaminess of the duck to play a more crucial role, but the coconut milk had such a blanketing effect that the bird “tasted more like white meat—like chicken, almost….The spicing and the sauce totally changed gears on it.” What the dish required, he decided, was a wine that had enough acidity to cut the fat of the duck, enough body to not be consumed by the creaminess of the coconut, and enough sweetness to play off the spice. Power is a fan of German rieslings, and Two Brothers’ was well within the budget. But when he spied it in the store, he nearly didn’t pick it up: “I was skeptical when I saw the blue bottle. That’s usually not a good sign.” He tested three other whites—a riesling-marsanne blend, a viognier, and a sauvignon blanc—before giving the blue bottle a go. He was particularly impressed by its finish, the way it’s able to stand up to the heat. “It hangs in there at the end. It really cleans you.”
Sebastian Zutant, Komi
Leo Hillinger, welschriesling, 2003, Austria
Another riesling? Not exactly, says Zutant. “It’s loosely related. It has similar characteristics but genetic differences. It’s extra sharp and very, very light. Usually you get more depth with a riesling.” Zutant’s first instinct, as he slurped up his curry, was to go with something “full-bodied, with a lot of viscosity.” He tried a viura blanca from Spain, then a Tokay from Friulano. They felt wrong—clumsy, lacking in finesse. “I needed something that had a little bit more polish, a little more panache. Something a little bit more fun. It’s a dancey cuisine.” He turned to a wine that was close to home: a selection from his own idiosyncratic list at Komi. It’s not just the lightness of the Hillinger welschriesling that Zutant likes; it’s the fruitiness, the pronounced notes of green apple and citrus. “There’s so much going on—sweet and sour and hot and creamy and rich,” he says. At $6 a glass ($26 a bottle), it’s something Zutant finds himself recommending often; he notes that it pairs “exceptionally well” with chef Johnny Monis’ crispy sardines with lemon pickle. He considers the Hillinger a “great value. It’s incredibly cheap for the quality of wine you’re getting.”
Jarad Slipp, Ray’s the Steaks
Villa Jolanda, prosecco, NV, Italy
Leave it to the quirky Slipp—whose wine list at the late Nectar was easily the city’s most obscure—to put the kibosh to the prospect of an all-riesling roundtable. He doesn’t understand why sparkling wine is consigned to the “special-occasion” category, especially when you consider that, like the versatile riesling, it’s “one of the great food equalizers. It will go with damn near anything yet has an affinity for spicy foods.” Bubbles are the key for Slipp—“happy little bubbles,” which “whisk away the heat as they cut through the fat of both the duck and the coconut milk.” Oh, there’s acidity, to be sure, as well as a bit of “toastiness” to give the wine “structure and spine,” but the Villa Jolanda prosecco also possesses a “subtler side, marked with gobs of tropical fruit that again tie in to the coconut and bits of pineapple you may encounter lurking under the surface.”—Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.