Rieslings calm the heat of spicy Asian food

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A classic question among the dining curious: What kind of wine goes with spicy Asian food? The classic answer: Riesling.

With a paper bib resting on my chest, I found myself on a recent morning apologizing to my dentist and dental hygienist for my fire breath. Scheduling is not my forte, so the appointment was at an hour I normally am not awake for, and on a morning following a late-night spicy food and wine feast in Chinatown.

“We all have our nights-at-the-Chinese-restaurant,” my dentist assured me. “Don’t worry.”

This is one of the reasons she has been my dentist for more than a decade — because going to the dentist, like eating hot Asian food, can sometimes be a little painful, and a touch of sweetness always balances out the experience. Of course the dentist also has to be good at her job, which mine is, and the food has to be not just hot but also good, which is why I chose Lao Sze Chuan (2172 S. Archer, 312-326-5040) for some Riesling research.

A classic question among the dining curious: What kind of wine goes with spicy Asian food? The classic answer: Riesling. To prove it to myself I headed to Chinatown with two bottles of the renowned white wine and ripped through five hot dishes, many of them cooked with onions, garlic and chili peppers. In the end I confirmed what I had long believed — that sweeter wines are the best complement to spicy foods.

Some say that dry, sparkling wines are best because they have a cleansing effect. It’s a good argument, and a valid option. But for me, a nice contrasting sweetness is equally or more satisfying.

Not all Rieslings are sweet, let alone overly sweet, despite what a lot of people think. In fact, some Rieslings are tart enough to induce scrunched faces, but many land somewhere in the middle, between tart and treacle. The wine usually offers some combination of lemon, green apple, apricot and peach flavors, and when there is a touch of sweetness in the mix, along with Riesling’s signature bright acidity, it is a good fit with spicy Asian food.

Before the first dish arrived at Lao Sze Chuan, a cold rabbit dish swimming in chili oil, I enjoyed a glass of 2007 True & Daring Riesling ($35) from New Zealand. It was on the drier side, so it was a great way to start dinner. Its citrus flavors and minerality also were delicious with an order of spicy green beans, chef Tony Hu’s signature chicken, and a tender lamb dish spiced with cumin. But the dishes with more heat just overpowered it.

Luckily I also had carried a bottle of 2011 Cupcake Vineyards Riesling ($13) into Lao Sze Chuan. (The restaurant sells wine but also allows guests to bring their own for a $10 a table corkage fee.) The Cupcake, made from grapes grown in Germany’s famous Mosel region, was lemony and sweet and slightly viscous. It paired well with the chicken and lamb, but it went a step further and stood up to the eyebrow-raising spicy cabbage, and the lip-numbing rabbit appetizer. At times during dinner, plain rice never tasted so good. And at the end of dinner, as my mouth recovered, I enjoyed another glass of True & Daring on its own.

While Riesling is grown and produced all over the world, some of the most sought-after Rieslings come from Germany, Austria and the Alsace region of France. Other noted Riesling areas include Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, California and Washington.

Riesling labels can be tough to decipher, especially when you factor in language barriers and a dizzying amount of classifications worldwide. The next logical question: How do you know if a Riesling is dry or sweet if it doesn’t say on the label? The simple answer: Check the alcohol content. If it is below 10 percent, the wine probably is on the sweeter side. As that number notches up toward 12 percent, the sweetness fades.

My spicy food-Riesling research supports this notion, as the sweeter Cupcake clocked in at 10 percent, and the drier True & Daring reported 12.2 percent.

“Is that what you call it?” my dentist said. “Research?”

“Well, I paid attention and I took notes,” I said. She then stuck her fingers back into my mouth.

“Oh, then it really is research,” she said in a supportive tone.

A little heat, a little sweet. At a dinner table or in a dentist’s chair with a light shining on you, it’s all about balance.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail thepourman@suntimes.com.