You've got less than 10 minutes to duck into a wine shop and grab a bottle for dinner. But what will pair best with spicy food and stick with the concept of tasty, blissfully cheap BYO dining?
Luckily, there are people like Diana Hamann in the world, an all-around wine expert who's as jazzed about turning people on to wine as she is about sipping stuff that's inexpensive. Hamann began her career buying wine for Whole Foods before becoming a wine merchant for Wine.com in Napa. "All of a sudden I found myself on a team with two master sommeliers, a master of wine and little old me."
Nowadays no one would call this Chicago native a little old anything—her resume boasts heavy hitters like Japonais, Le Passage and Fox & Obel; she's the wine director and instructor at the Chopping Block; and she runs a wine consulting business, Wine Goddess, where she publishes her free (and famous) Cheap and Good list. And to top it all off, she's still willing to use words like "rockin'" and "sinfully good" to describe her favorites. We asked her, quite simply: What should we buy on our way to BYO?
Indian Indian food is all about German Riesling. There's so much sun in American wine-producing regions that the grapes get super ripe so when you go to ferment, they carry really high alcohol levels. The last thing you want to do with a really hot and spicy curry is throw a bunch of alcohol on top of it, and German Riseling is comparatively low, usually between eight and 11 percent. They range from bone dry to downright sweet, and the major fruit flavors are peach, apple and honey. But Rieslings also have really searing acidity and literally act like a big Zamboni, cleaning your palette of any residual sugar.
Mexican When in doubt I always choose Spanish or Argentinean wines, especially Spanish wines in the New World style. There are tons of Spanish wines on the market right now that have flashy, funky labels—if they're doing that sassafrass with their labeling they're probably vinifying them in the New World style. What you want is a wine that's dry but also fruity. In particular I like the Garnacha grape, aka Grenache. It's really plush, spicy raspberry fruit with just a touch of cola on the back end. It's more of a greasy taco wine than a high-end tapas wine. For white I really like Torrentes. It's crazily fruity and aromatic with all sorts of lychee and tropical fruits.
Sushi What you're really looking for is a dry, crisp and clean wine, one with little-to-no oak. Chardonnay is not a good idea because it has an oaky, butterscotch sting to it, while Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are great with sushi. For sashimi I would go for a drier style of Riesling, such as Austrian or Australian. If it's a fleshier fish or if there's a sweeter sauce, like unagi sauce, do German Riesling or, better yet, a Vouvray; it's comprised of the Chenin Blanc grape and it's often vinified in a somewhat sweeter style. If you need to drink red wine, you want to stay away from harsh tannins, that astringency factor that you get from dense wines. You could get away with Pinot Noir, especially with salmon or tuna.
Italian Italy has been making wine since God was a boy, and so it's no wonder the wines grew up alongside its celebrated tables. Italian wines were absolutely born and bred to be paired with high salty food, cured meats or tomato-based pasta dishes. Tomato sauce is really high in acidity, as are these wines, and the acidity levels meet in the middle and mellow each other out. Sangiovese and Barbera go well with tomato-based dishes or cheesy pizza. For white sauce or seafood there's crazy good Italian wine. Falanghina is really dry with racy acidity and really pleasant apple, peach and almondine notes and hardly any oak influence.
Thai Thai food is exotic so you want something equally exotic. Floral and perfumed whites go really well, especially German Riesling. You can get away with red wine but you want it fruity and not too tannic, like Grenache and Pinot Noir. A great compromise is a really dry, fruity rose. I know most people are like rose? But if ask nine out of 10 wine experts what's among their favorite versatile food wines, they'll probably say rose. It's a nice compromise, especially ones from the south of France, Spain or Italy. You want it as fresh as humanly possible, so you shouldn't be drinking anything older than 2005 right now.
Want a specific bottle suggestion? Hamann recommends:
Indian: Zilliken Riesling "Butterfly" or Von Buhl Jazz Riesling
Mexican: Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha or Crios De Balbo Torrentes
Sushi: Sokol Blosser Evolution #9 or Tangent Pinot Blanc
Italian: Villa Giada Barbera "I Suri" or Farnatella Chianti Colli Senesi
Thai: Cristalino Rose Brut or Nino Franco Prosecco "Rustico"
To check out the full Cheap and Good list, head to www.winegoddess.com. Check out the Wine Goddess classes at the Chopping Block, Wednesday evenings at the Merchandise Mart locale and Friday evenings in Lincoln Square.