As part of an ongoing series, several local sommeliers were asked to select wines that retail for $12 or under, that are available in stores now, and that make a good match with an everyday, non-fine-dining dish familiar to many Washingtonians—in this case, kung pao chicken from Dupont Circle’s City Lights of China, a favorite lunchtime staple as well as a popular pick for weeknight carryout.

Jarad Slipp, Nectar

Kir-Yianni, Akakies, 2002, Greece

Slipp claims to have had “an unfair disadvantage” over his colleagues, given that City Lights has “formed the foundation of [his] personal nutritional pyramid (above it you will find booze, late-night pizza, and peanut M&M’s)” for years. He rejects the notion that kung pao chicken is spicy, despite the conspicuous caution symbols on the menu: “They give you four little Thai chilies that contain all the heat, that most people end up leaving behind.” So Slipp focused not on spiciness but spicing—the complex, layered flavors of a dish that is both savory and sweet. As at Nectar, where the iconoclastic Slipp’s wine list includes no merlots, no sauvignons blancs, and no chardonnays, the pick here is a quirky one: an Akakies, made from the xinomavro grape—“an oddity indigenous to Northern Greece made by one of the country’s best producers, Yiannis Boutaris.” Slipp praises this dry rosé for its “scent of strawberries,” its “well-balanced acidity and tannin,” and the way it leaves “something ethereally akin to cumin” in the mouth. This Akakies is also remarkably versatile; Slipp, who says he keeps a case of it at home, talks about it the way you might a co-worker beloved by the entire office: “He’s happy-go-lucky and gets on well with most every dish he encounters….You can break him out for taco night, pizza and pasta, or firing up the grill.” Slipp likes it so much, he’s even included it on the menu at Nectar—though this fun, agreeable wine is subject, there, to the usual restaurant markup: It sells for $40 a bottle.

Kathy Morgan, Ristorante Tosca

Palacio Menade, verdejo, 2002, Spain

Like Slipp, Morgan wasn’t much concerned with the spiciness of the kung pao; the challenge for her—and, she says, she submitted herself to numerous private tastings for this column—was in the “earthy flavors” of the dish: ginger, garlic, green onions, and soy. The more she sampled the kung pao, the more she came to believe that verdejo, a varietal native to northern Spain, is a natural fit. Morgan praises this one for its unmistakable “minerality,” going so far as to tick off some of its distinct palatal qualities: “limestone, gravel, and wet stones.” As it happens, the stoniness, a structural element, is balanced out by a neat fruitiness on the tongue; the notes of “lime” and “green melon” (along with a good deal of acidity) enable the verdejo to stand up to the heat of the kung pao’s peppers.

Francisco Astudillo, Cafe Atlantico

Ayles, Tinto Joven, 2002, Spain

For Astudillo, neither the dark sweetness of its sauce nor its heat was the challenge in finding a good match for the kung pao. “You have to put into perspective what is important about a dish,” he says. “In this case, what is important is the flavor of the chicken and the [green] peppers—not the spices.” Astudillo’s pick is a young Spanish red, which hasn’t been aged in oak but tastes nonetheless surprisingly mature, soft and ripe and lush. “In the nose, you’re getting good complexity,” he says, with aromas of cherry, raspberry, green pepper (a key ingredient), and spice. But not, he adds, too much spice—“you don’t want to overwhelm the chicken; the chicken flavor in the dish is not too strong.” For such a young wine, there is “good weight to the fruit,” which helps it hold its own against bold, powerful dishes like kung pao. “There’s good concentration; it’s not as watered down as some young reds. And the texture is very velvety, very soft—again, unlike a lot of young reds.” Astudillo calls this easy-to-pair blend “one of my favorite bargain wines” and makes sure to keep a lot of it on hand at Cafe Atlantico, where it lists at $26 a bottle.

Todd Thrasher, Restaurant Eve

Strauss, samling, 2003, Austria

The first time Thrasher sampled this obscure samling, let alone served it, was last spring, at a wine dinner at Eve. “It’s 10 bucks, and I’d never, ever heard of the grape”—also known as scheurebe—“before then.” After pretty much gorging himself on kung pao chicken for a week—“Ever since you mentioned it, I just had this craving, you know?”—he thought back to that dinner. Sommeliers are always likening their wines to fruits or vegetables or spices; Thrasher likens his pick to other whites. “It’s similar to torrontes, in that it has to be served a bit cold. And it’s a little viscous, like a viognier.” Thrasher, himself, could be likened to both Slipp and Morgan in his approach to the challenge. Like Slipp, with whom he shares a fondness for challenging his customers, Thrasher opted to accentuate the sweetness of the dish, not cut it. His pick is “very, very soft and floral, with lots of peaches, but a really great mouthfeel.” And, like Morgan, he looked to maximize the earthiness of the dish, finding the samling a neat match with its “rich aromas of peat and wildflower, with just a bit of stone fruit and a bit of spice.” Thrasher likes the samling so much, he’s decided to put it on his menu next spring for $30 a bottle.

—Todd Kliman

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