I went to Vietnam 15 years ago strictly for the food. That was long before the tourist waves arrived, and I was assured there was a thriving wine culture, given the country’s historical ties with France. I did have some wonderful food, but it was hard to find decent wine.
That, unfortunately, is also the case in many of the Bay Area’s more casual Vietnamese restaurants, although usually you can bring your own bottle.
One big exception is chef Charles Phan’s Bay Area restaurant empire that includes the Slanted Door on The Embarcadero, Out the Door, South (at the SFJAZZ Center), Hard Water and Green Cap Catering.
The chef’s most notable restaurant, Slanted Door, has upped the ante on wine pairing with Asian flavors. I spoke to the restaurant group’s wine director, Chaylee Priete, about how she finds wines to make the restaurant’s Vietnamese-inspired dishes soar. She tends to share my perspective that high-acid, slightly sweet wines work well with these somewhat spicy and often delicate Asian flavors.
“It is easy to overpower Vietnamese food with the wrong wine,” Priete said. “It has to be something that cleans the palate, therefore wines with acid. It has to be something that counterbalances the heat, thus residual sweetness. And it cannot have tannin because all of our dishes contain fish sauce and when you put a red wine with tannin in your mouth at the same time as fish sauce the wine tastes like metal.”
She adds that to pair the flavors on Slanted Door’s menu she seeks out “extremely mineral-driven wines, high in acid and low in alcohol and some with residual sugar.”
In terms of staff education, Priete said the company advises “servers and sommeliers to start with dry, crisp, refreshing whites and then to move up in body, weight and sweetness as the meal progresses. A basic but ideal example would be to start with a young, primarily fruit-driven gruner veltliner [from Austria] with the appetizers, a German Kabinett [one of the driest German wines] once the seafood entrees are placed on the table, and then to pour a German Spatlese with the last sweet and spicy dishes, aka the clay pot.”
While beer has long been a go-to option for Vietnamese food, it doesn’t “enhance the food necessarily,” Priete said.
“The right wine elevates the experience by matching a bit of sweetness and heat with a bit of sweetness and refreshing acidity,” she said.
As with many other Asian cuisines, many Vietnamese flavors don’t work well with the intense fruit flavors, tannins and oak in many red wines.
“It really doesn’t pair well with red wine at all,” Priete said of Vietnamese food. “However, the red wines that work are low-alcohol, high-acid, fresh-bodied reds that do not exhibit much or any tannin.”
Priete encourages guests to “ask for a fresh white wine that has a lot of minerality and acidity and ideally a bit of sugar. German Kabinett riesling is the easiest and simplest no-fail pairing.”
It’s a good strategy for buying wines for takeout as well. Ask your local wine shop to find a wine from a cool-climate growing area with bright acidity and a touch of sweetness. Bubbles also almost always will do the trick, too.