Just as you think you might have got to grips with matching wine with Chinese food along comes a regional cuisine like Szechuan which is twice as challenging, as I discovered at a wine dinner at Flinty Red in Bristol last night.
Actually I tell I lie - I had already had a go at trying to find wines that would go with its fiery flavours at Bar Shu in Soho alongside the formidable Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Sichuan Cookery and the recently published Every Grain of Rice. I seem to remember we concluded that fruity rosé and a soft ripe Bordeaux without too much tannin were good options but it wasn’t easy.
The talented team at Flinty Red - Dom Harman, Rachel Higgens and chefs Matthew Williamson and Claire Thomson - took a different direction with the wines which were paired with the home-style dishes of Lily Wang of the Szechuan capital, Chengdu, who happens to be Claire's stepmother. What was notable about the meal was its striking changes of pace - from the delicate herb broth and fragrant scallop dish in which you caught every nuance of the scallop meat to the fiery 'multi-flavoured chicken' and hot and sour noodles - a real switchback ride for the palate.
The standout matches included two rieslings - the 2010 R3 Riesling trocken from Stefan Breuer and slightly sweeter 2010 Riesling spätlese, Gut Hermannsberg which were paired with three dishes - sweet and sour spicy cucumber with stewed ox tongue (which had apparently been braised for a day and a half in 18 different spices), some fragrant pork dumplings with Chinese chives and the spicy multi-flavour chicken. The drier R3 worked best with the intensely aromatic tongue - a wonderful dish - while the spätlese coped better with the heat of the chicken. I think the fact that both were recent vintages helped.
Interestingly they switched back to a drier white with the scallops - a 2009 R & A Pfalll Grüner Veltliner Hundsleiten - which had a refreshing herbal edge that perfectly suited the delicate, cooling dish.
The big surprise of the evening however was an intensely aromatic 2011 Zohar Torrontes from Susanna Balbo in Argentina’s Salta region which was an outstanding wine pairing with a tricky to match dish of cold ‘hot and sour' noodles with Szechuan pepper and chilli oil which somehow enhanced its own floral character. But it didn’t work with the next dish of Mapo Dofu (a very spicy tofu recipe also known unflatteringly as ‘old pock-marked woman’), rice and Szechuan pickles.
Nor on the other hand did a very pretty raspberryish 2010 Framingham Pinot Noir though it possibly might have done if it had been chilled for longer. It was the only match that didn’t come off through the whole evening though a Bruno Sorg Crémant d’Alsace struggled a bit with a very peppery dish of spiced potato. Sichuan pepper is particularly hard to handle as it’s not only hot but leaves your mouth tingling.
The final intriguing pairing was a semi-sparkling gamay called Boisson Rouge from Domaine Montrieux, a natural wine that hit it off surprisingly well with the dessert - a sticky rice ball with nuts and sugar - and also provided a palate-cleansing finish to the meal.
All credit, I must say, to Lily and the guys at Flinty Red for an incredible meal and some inspired matches - and for proving how well Szechuan food can lend itself to a tasting menu. It would have been hard to find one wine to go throughout the meal though if I’d have been forced to chose I would probably have gone for the spätlese riesling.
All the wines can be bought from Flinty Red's sister shop, Corks of Cotham with whom I have no relation though I write about them a lot. I paid for the meal, in case you're wondering - a very reasonable £35 including wines.
Note: Sweet wine obviously has an affinity with the fiery heat of some Szechuan dishes as you can read from Margaret Rand’s write-up of an earlier dinner with Tokaji here.