Pairing General Tso's

In this column we ask experts to help us pair wine with ordinary food.

Because I’m not alone on this, there’s no shame in admitting it. Every so often we all (well, most of us, anyway) crave good bad takeout Chinese food.

Yes, good bad. Not regional delicacies, but the stuff found on Americanized buffet lines and take-away menus—fried wonton, crab rangoon, General Tso’s chicken—prepared just well enough to clear the regret line.

General Tso’s is a staple of this genre. At its best, the vaguely Chinese dish is a marvel, with the crackle of coated meat, the raspy crunch of scallions, flickers of chile heat, rearing ginger and garlic, all countered by an earthy sweetness.

But really, when do we find General Tso’s at its best? Far too often restaurants skimp on the recipe, allowing soggy nuggets to wallow in a nondescript sauce, robbing the dish of its signature balance of flavors and textures. Some—like Great Wall in Monterey—even leave the dish nameless. It’s just General’s Chicken.

Still we crave it. Given the unpredictable nature of the dish, however, pairing a bottle with General Tso’s is a winemaker’s nightmare.

“How spicy?” asks Scott Shapley of Flywheel Wines.

Hey, read the intro. There’s no way of knowing until you open the takeout carton. That’s the challenge.

So Shapley hedges. “Rosé pairs well,” he says. “But…”

A white or Rosé would seem obvious. Yet the more he considered the pairing, a riskier option worked its way into Shapley’s mind. He finally suggested his own 2016 Flywheel Grenache, with grapes from the Boer Vineyard nestled in the Chalone appellation. 

It’s an inviting wine, offering swirls of cherry and strawberry with a hint of nettle on the nose. A dense bowl of fruit envelops the palate, trailed by notions of cinnamon, cured tobacco leaves and a brisk sensation of lemon zest on the edge.

The wine is enjoyable on its own. There is, however, a caveat looming: a Monday evening order of General’s Chicken from Great Wall.

Yes, the chicken is crispy. But there are no scallions, no chilies—nothing but fried meat and a reserved drizzle of sauce. The spice is meek under the citrus-tinged blast of soy.

So how does the pairing stand up? Against the dish, Flywheel’s Grenache becomes fresh and juicy. It picks up on the faint spice in the General’s sauce and twirls it over the palate. The citrus sizes up the harsh soy and then cuts it down, at the same time bringing depth to the sauce.

While the wine surrenders some of its intrigue, it improves an ordinary General Tso’s presentation. 

So Shapley’s Grenache gamble works.

“Now I want to try it,” he says.

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