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Chicago Gourmet Wed Oct 01 2008
Oh, Alpana, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways... Riesling, cabernet sauvignon, pinot gris, viognier... That's at least four, right? Throw in that musical laugh and adorable stories about hanging with Argentinian wine magnate Ernesto Catena in his maze-shaped vineyard with sommeliers-cum-belly dancers. (Whoa.) Even if you're not an avowed Alpana Singh fan, you have to admit the woman knows her wines, and was sharing her knowledge for the benefit of the city's BYOB diners at Chicago Gourmet this past weekend. Focusing more on the bounty of available ethnic cuisine the city offers rather than individual restaurants, the pairing of six wines with six neighborhood styles was a great introduction to thougtful BYOB shopping. Rather than picking up some two-buck Chuck or "whatever Trader Joe's has with a cute animal label," Alpana suggested springing occasionally for a $20 bottle of wine at the supermarket, especially since the restaurant mark-up of the same wine would put it closer to $70. All the advice and a few more delightful anecdotes below the fold.
For Mexican dining, a wine that complements the condiments on the table and beats the heat is a Spanish varietal called Albarinio, which has that green, tart, zesty flavor that goes nicely with lime and a fruitiness to dull any firey cookery. Alpana noted this is sort of the wine version of a margarita, which Adam Seger has said is the most food-friendly cocktail of all. He would know. I didn't catch the name of the exact wine we tasted, but Albarinios are available at Sam's and other places in Chicago for as little as $10/bottle.
Greek food of course goes best with Greek wine -- well, when you're in Greece, and no one is pouring retsina. Greek wines are finally getting some positive attention outside the country, and Alpana recommended Sigalas Santorini, made from white assyrtiko grapes native to the island itself and that can easily thrive in the ashy, volcanic soil there. Vines grow more like bushes, close to the ocean where there's actual moisture instead of baking heat, and are trained into basket-like structures to catch the mist and spray of the waves. The wine itself is sweet and very similar to a Riesling -- so similar in its flavor and ability to age well that Alpana suggested doing a DNA grape testing and taking it to Maury Povich to see if the two are actually related. The Santorini is available in Chicago for about $18/bottle.
The suggested pairing for Indian food was another sweeter wine from the French side of Alsace. Indian food is notoriously difficult to match in the glass, because of the extreme variety of its flavors and preparations. But the peachy, tropical flavors of an Alsatian white can act much as mango chutney or tamarind sauce would in cutting the heat and softening the complexity of the flavors on the plate. Alpana suggested the Marcel Deiss 2005 Pinot Gris, which comes in at about $25/bottle, a wine that would also be a lovely compliment to a creamy soft cheese, pate, or...bacon. Oh, I love this woman's mind. If pairing a white with your curry is just too crazy, fruitier reds like a Beaujolais or zinfandel can work in a similar fashion, and Alpana suggested chilling them down before drinking to further open up those sweeter flavors.
The round, supple but peppery and berry flavors in a red like Bonny Doon's Cigare-Volant make it a great foil for the spiciness of cumin and other flavors in Middle Eastern food. Alpana suggested other Rhone or Chateau Neuf style wines would be nice for eating out at a restaurant like Sayat Nova in the city, or a Spanish-style Grenache. Cabernet is the perennial pretty girl at the dance when it comes to BYOB reds, but the sheer cost of Napa real estate makes a pound of cab grapes go to market at upwards of $5000 per ton -- which makes a quality bottle of cab around at least $100. Experimenting with geography and similar varietals can be a cheaper way to experience a similar tasting and feeling wine.
For Italian food, a red with the tartness to stand up to tomato sauce, pizza, mushrooms and steak is called for -- such as the Syrah-like Aglianico from the Naples area in the motherland. The smoky smell, sour cherries and brittle oak leaves flavors make it a good wine for winter food in general, especially braised dishes. But will it be as good as sipping it on an autumn terrace from whence it came? "People always ask me why Italian wine tastes better in Italy. They're like, is it the sulfites?" Alpana noted, "No... It's because you're in Italy!" Makes sense to me.
And finally, the BYOB pairing for Asian (well, Chinese or other similar cuisine -- not sushi) was the Argentinian Malbec Tikal Amorio from the aforementioned playboy and polo player Ernesto Catena. The rich wine has the round structure of a cab, but with a sweeter, softer feel and a ripe plum overtone that works really well with Chinese food, particularly soy, black bean or hoisin sauces. Alpana also noted that she'd recently picked a by-the-glass Malbec for Big Bowl, and that the category is really coming into its own as the number three by-the-glass option at restaurants today. While the Tikal Amorio is about $40 retail, plenty of good Malbecs can be found in the $12-15 range, and are great everyday wines not just for Asian food, but peanut butter and jelly as well. Hey, if Alpana thinks it's worth a shot, who am I to argue.