To find the best wines to drink alongside popular Sichuan dishes—such as dan dan noodles and mapo tofu—consider every aspect of a plate, from its sauce and level of spice heat, to how it was cooked.
Pairing wine with spicy Sichuan dishes is not nearly as difficult as you might think. The key is to get away from the old idea that the best bottles to open are sweet ones—because while a sweet Riesling with a taut spine of acidity can often work, it’s far from a guarantee. And a bad sweet wine that lacks structure will simply fall apart at the table.
“People always think 'sweet wines with Chinese food'—I really don’t know why,” says Han Chiang, owner of the Han Dynasty restaurants in Philadelphia and New York. “Maybe because the only Chinese alcohol [most] Americans know is plum wine, which is basically Boone’s Farm mixed with NyQuil (all respect to NyQuil). The truth is that Sichuan food has so much flavor, so many complexities in our sauces, that a syrupy sweet wine doesn’t stand up.
"The combination of spices and oils makes a lot of the sweeter wines taste funky," Chiang says. "That just doesn’t happen with dry wines, where the food and drink actually complement each other as opposed to getting in the way."
Chiang recently expanded his restaurants’ wine program to focus more on these pairings. He also enlisted Lê, the brilliant, single-monikered owner of Hop Sing Laundromat in Philadelphia, to develop cocktails to pair with the menu. The matcha-and-vodka based Phat Phuc cocktail, for example—it means Lucky Buddha or Happy Buddha in Vietnamese—shaken with egg whites, helps re-set the palate between dishes. The response to both the wine and the cocktails alongside the food has been overwhelmingly positive, the restaurateur says—“With these cocktails for Han,” Lê says, “I worked with both flavor and texture to make sure that the food was framed perfectly."
Across the globe, at the Temple House Hotel’s Jing Bar in Chengdu, an ambitious wine program is leveraged for similar purposes: To frame the food in interesting, unexpected ways. Sandrone Nebbiolo and Chateau Lafite-Rothschild are both poured by the glass and by the bottle alongside Ridge MonteBello, an extensive selection of Champagne, and more.
The lesson is fairly straightforward, at Jing Bar, Han Dynasty, and Sichuan-style restaurants wherever you find yourself: Consider every aspect of a plate, from its sauce and level of spice heat to how it was cooked.
Here are 10 popular Sichuan-style dishes, listed alphabetically, that you’re likely to encounter on menus in the U.S., along with recommendations for widely-available wines that will tend to work well with them.
- Cumin lamb: Whether it’s ribs or cubes of meat, the cumin notes here will play an outsized role in the pairing. Australian Shiraz is worth trying with this one, as is a fruity and spicy American Pinot Noir.
- Dan dan noodles: Rosé Champagne is a solid choice here, as is a crisp still rosé and a moderately concentrated Shiraz.
- Dry-fried chicken: A well-crafted Cabernet Sauvignon can work here—I was shocked when I tried it. The pyrazine in the wine (the component that gives some Cabs their hint of bell pepper) echoes many similar notes of vegetables in the dish.
- Eggplant with garlic sauce: As long as it’s not a sticky-sweet version of the dish, a bright Pinot Noir or a slightly chilled Beaujolais will accompany this nicely.
- Mapo tofu with minced pork: Despite the pork in this dish, putting the focus on the tofu itself, which soaks up sauce and other flavors, is a good idea. To that end, Grillo from Sicily and South African Chenin Blanc would be nice (look for some of the standout producers in Swartland), but you could also try the Austrian red grape variety Zweigelt or a gently funky Cotes du Rhone red.
- Mung bean noodles: The sauce in the dish is likely to be your guiding light in pairing wine here. A version with black beans sauce will work well with a Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel; garlicky and not-too-spicy sauces will reward crisp whites like Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc; an accompanying hit of chili oil will reward a less-sweet Riesling from Germany—just make sure it has enough acidity to stand up to that heat.
- Pork belly in sweet garlic and chili-oil sauce: It’s important here to choose a wine that will cut through the fat and richness of the pork belly itself while at the same time play nicely alongside both the sweeter and spicier flavors of the oil. It’s a tall order. Malbec from Argentina is a good option, as is a slightly cooler climate Pinot Noir (something from Chile’s Leyda Valley should work well). Spanish Garnacha, from Navarra, for example, is also worth checking out.
- Salt and pepper shrimp: Bright, energetic Sauvignon Blanc, a lime-driven Gruner Veltliner, or blanc de blancs Champagne. Great acidity seems to be the key here.
- Spicy cucumber: The mouthwatering acidity and lifted aromatics of Albariño, from Rias Baixes, is awfully close to a sure-fire hit.
- Spicy sausage: The hint of sweetness that typically accompanies these compulsively poppable sausages was, at a recent tasting, unexpectedly delicious alongside a moderately oaked California Chardonnay.