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The Charming Taste of Europe

French and Italian wines, Vietnamese food from Monsoon

The Consortium for the Protection of Wines of Abruzzo, Italy, and the Union of Sweet Bordeaux Wines of France have put together a campaign called The Charming Taste of Europe. This project is an introduction for the US and Canada to "…exquisite items that recall all of European beauty and grace." This may be a bit overstated, and I can't say that their slogan "Enjoy! It's from Europe" does anything for me. However, Liza Zimmerman, aka Liza the Wine Chick, paired this tasting project with Chefs/Owners Sophie and Eric Banh's food from Monsoon and, although difficult at times, managed to do some nice pairings. Sommelier and Seattle Uncorked founder David LeClaire was also on hand.

"A lot of people see beer as the pairing with non-Western food," said Eric. "When Sophie and I were growing up in Vietnam, it was the only game in town. In pre-Communist Saigon, wine was only available among the elite. It's a hot country-ice it and it's refreshing. Bubbles cleanse the palate. In fact, if you drink sparkling water, food tastes better. Obviously, there's a French legacy of wine in Vietnam. In Southeast Asia, wines tend to have high acidity, low alcohol, and less tannin. I visited Germany in 1985 and found some sweeter wines. We add sugar and honey in our dishes and drink sweet beverages. Sake is a definite no with Vietnamese food. It's dry and high in alcohol. It goes well with Japanese food, like toro, because the alcohol can hold its own against the fattiness."

Wines of Abruzzo

"In earlier days here, very few small ethnic restaurants carried a lot of wine," explained David. "They had one red, one white, and both were at room temperature, which was often 85°. Only a place like Wild Ginger would carry anything you were looking for. A lot of Americans drink off-dry wine. When they first started drinking, they'd drink sweet wines until their palates matured. To go back to sweet wines feels like regression to some. If you look at foods from Asian countries, you'll see complex flavors: heat, sugar, salt. So you need wines complex enough to stand up to that. Japanese food is often very simple, so sake works. There was a general philosophy that white wine went with white protein but that isn't how it has to be. You can have a white fish with morels and a sauce that pairs better with a red."

"In the old days, we didn't have natural wine and many reds were heavy," recalled Eric. "Now I'd say red is fine as long as it's low in alcohol. A Gamay works."

The tasting started with a Tenutarossa Trebbiano d'Abruzzo Superior D.O.C., 2010, 100% Trebbiano, as an aperitif. Following courses were:

Watermelon salad, watercress, candied walnuts, salted duck eggs, oyster sauce vinaigrette, paired with Château les Arroucats Sainte Croix du Mont, 2017. A sweeter wine (92% Sémillon, 8% Sauvignon), it was best when combined with a bite of all the food flavors (i.e., not great with watermelon alone, but if you tried it with the walnuts, duck eggs, and vinaigrette, it worked).

Spicy green beans with five-spice beef tongue. This was a first for me, I had never tried beef tongue before. Sophie and Eric have a way with beef (and everything else); this was amazingly tender and delicious. It was paired with Cerasuolo D'Abruzzo D.O.C. Anfora, 2019, which was light, nice, and fruity (100% Montepulciano d'Abruzzo).

Salt and pepper chicken wings were next, crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and a squeeze of lime to set it off. Paired with Château de Garbes Cabanieu Cadillac, 2015, (100% Sémillon).

Asian eggplant, braised pork belly with sweet corn, shrimp jerky, onion, garlic, and ghee was another first for me, having never had Asian eggplant. It was lighter in color, a bit stringy, and so tender. The pairing with Château Dauphiné Rondillon Cuvée d'or Loupiac, 2015, another sweet wine (80% Sémillon, 20% Sauvignon), worked well with both eggplant and pork belly.

Braised salmon, coconut water, aged fish sauce, with Walla Walla onions was a salmon-eater's delight. It was paired with a Domaine de Lavialle Première Côtes de Bordeaux, 2017, which worked well with both the sweet and hot in the dish (90% Sémillon, 10% Muscadelle).

Saigon Phở, eye round of beef, roasted mushroom is a true treat at Monsoon. "In Hanoi, phở doesn't have hoisin, sriracha, etc.," said Eric. "When you order phở, taste before you add these things. Mainly they just cool the phở. Twenty-four hours goes into our phở with curly green onion and eye round of beef. It's our intention to bring the Hanoi version to guests. Our noodles aren't quite authentic because we need glutinous flour to get the texture right. Our producers won't make small amounts of noodles this way, so know that you should eat the noodles quickly." Château La Hargue Bordeaux Moelleux, 2019 (57% Sauvignon Blanc, 29% Sémillon, 14% Sauvignon Gris) was excellent with the broth.

Lemongrass chicken, aged fish sauce, garlic, turmeric was another winning dish, paired nicely with Talamonti Trabocchetto Pecorino Abruzzo D.O.C., 2020 (100% Pecorino).

Grilled beef on la lot leaves was a big winner, apparently very popular as an appetizer. Tightly-rolled leaves around beef, easy to use your fingers and full of flavor. The Vigna Le Coste Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riversa D.O.C., 2016 (100% Montepulciano) has a bit of a bite and stood up well to the flavors.

Banana cake with savory coconut cream and exotic fruits (yes, yes, delicious!) paired well with Domaine de Bouillerot le Palais d'or Côtes de Bordeaux Saint-Macaire, 2017 (100% Sémillon).

Lessons learned: get back to Monsoon tout de suite; sweeter wines pair beautifully with Vietnamese food; look for wines from Abruzzo, Italy, and Bordeaux, France, to see what other foods they pair well with (or just drink for pleasure on their own).

Connie Adams/August 2021

Wine photos courtesy of The Charming Taste of Europe

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