Over years of covering wine in Asia, one touchy subject that never grows stale is the challenge of pairing wine with Asian food. I confess I’m conflicted myself, and have occasionally got in hot water with a glib comment to the effect that it’s a waste of time.
I don’t mean that we in Asia shouldn’t enjoy food and wine together, or that trying to understand how different Asian cuisines pair with wine isn’t a fascinating and worthwhile endeavour. I mean that the wholesale application of European pairing principles to Asian meals mostly just results in anxiety, confusion and a rapid regression to beer drinking.
One aspect of this discussion that raises tensions is the concept of “Asian food” as one thing, as if anything you could say about Indian food would also apply to Japanese food (never mind that I’ve just irritated even more people by implying “Indian food” or “Japanese food” are monolithic concepts).
However, there are some common traits of cuisines throughout our continent. They usually involve serving many dishes on the table at once, rather than separate courses. Most also involve generous use of condiments and sauces, further complicating the picture. Few involve large, lightly seasoned proteins, on which most western pairing recommendations are based (remember “white with fish, red with meat”). All of these factors boost the difficulty level of finding here “the perfect match,” an elusive concept anyway that becomes deeply impractical when you find yourself at a table with a dozen dishes and as many sauces.
BREAKING THE RULES
Some dining establishments simply make their cuisine more western, serving it in protein-driven courses with a single wine assigned to each course. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this as a dining experience—in fact it can be truly enjoyable—but it doesn’t help in terms of integrating wine into the dining culture at large. And since a lot of local restaurants don’t have their own wine programmes and tend to be BYO friendly, enthusiasts generally just bring the wines they would drink anyway (usually a Bordeaux or a Burgundy), pairing be damned. Perhaps they are missing out on nice aromatic or semi-aromatic white, like a riesling, gewürztraminer, grüner veltliner or pinot gris.
Again, people can do whatever they want—and who am I to turn down a glass of Cheval Blanc over dim sum? However, having experienced a few too many times the acrid combination of braised abalone and cabernet tannins, I have some thoughts on how the experience could be improved. The approach I’ve developed over the past decade of living and drinking wine all over Asia is based on a few simple ideas.
MIX AND MATCH
First, you’re never going to get the perfect match, so be prepared to take along several sufficiently different options—I recommend at least three—to your meal, pour them all at once and test with each dish. It’s fun, I promise. Just be sure to tip the staff extra for managing all the glassware (especially if it’s a free corkage situation).
Then think about matching according to overall weight and flavour intensity rather than fixating on specific ingredients. Both wine and food can either be heavy or light and intense or subtle in flavour. Matching opposites can work—such as light wines with heavy food, though generally not the other way around—but usually it’s best if the intensity of the food and wine are roughly equal. And remember, don’t get too focused on wine colour. A flamboyantly buxom gewürztraminer is both heavier and more intense than a fine-boned, wispy little Beaujolais.
A final but critical step is to avoid some obvious bombs, such as pairing Sichuan peppercorns, which make all wines taste sweeter and more buttery, with oak-laden Chardonnays. Certain key ingredients in every cuisine can pose issues for certain wine styles, so by screening for those you’ve already significantly upped your chances of a pleasant meal.
Three wines for a Cantonese meal
(light weight, subtle flavour)
Cantonese cuisine has relatively few challenges. Pungent seafood ingredients clash with tannins while umami-rich soy sauce can make wine taste less fruity and more bitter, so avoid overly acidic or tannic wines (though a trick to bring back the fruitiness is to add a dash of vinegar to a dish).
1. Barone Pizzini Satèn Brut 2014
Franciacorta is both less acidic and less sweet than most champagne, making it a fine choice to complement delicate seafood dishes. A long time on the lees, giving the wine its own umami, subtle oak use and an ultra-fine, delicate mousse (satèn is a lower pressure, blanc de blancs style) all help make its case.
2. Valdesil Godello Sobre Lias 2015
Again, time on lees adds umami to help manage soy-laced dishes. The flavour profile is understated: green apple, fresh-cut grass, blanched almond; and the structure is light and linear without being overly acidic, making this a versatile choice to drink throughout a meal.
3. Chateau Mercian Fuefuki Koshu Gris de Gris 2017
For richer, heftier appetisers or roast poultry, the creamy, waxy texture of this “in-betweener” weight is perfect. An evocative nose with cotton flowers, pink grapefruit, dried peach, nutmeg and cedar shavings gives enough interest without overwhelming mild dishes.
Other ideas: Blanc de blancs champagne or cava; chablis (up to Premier Cru level) or muscadet sur lies; Alsace pinot gris or else red Burgundy from Volnay, Savigny and other “elegant” villages.
Three wines for a Korean meal
(heavy weight, subtle flavour)
Although I wouldn’t normally call Korean food “subtle,” white beef bone broths (tang) and the non-spicy versions of rich winter braises (jjim) and stews (jjigae) are exceptions. Watch out for umami-rich garlic, seaweed and doenjang (soybean paste), which exaggerate acid and bitterness, or sugar (similar effect).
1. Prieler Johanneshöhe Blaufränkisch 2018
A buoyant, refreshing red to brighten cold winter days, this delightfully red berried and perfumed rendition of Austria’s blaufränkisch grape is the choice for when it all seems to be getting too heavy.
2. Jacques Puffeney Arbois Vin Jaune 2011
Jura’s vin jaune ages for more than six years under a veil of yeast, picking up notes of roasted nuts, iodine, sauna cedar and sour apples, marrying nicely with savoury Korean flavours. A soft, lightly oily texture is a natural fit with fatty food textures.
3. Alvaro Palacios Gratallops 2010
Priorat often has the unctuous volume of a new world wine without the blockbuster fruit. Iconic Gratallops has savoury raspberry fruit with leather, cloves and nutmeg. It has a concentrated, dense middle with a firm frame compensating and surprising acidity for the garnacha grape.
Other ideas: Beaujolais villages or Bourgogne rouge; Fino sherry or very dry madeira; Château-neuf-du-Pape or pomerol from a ripe year, Napa cabernet sauvignon, Australian shiraz
Three wines for a Bangkok meal
Sugary food makes wine taste sour and bitter, and lime can make it taste flat. Given these are conflicting problems, try picking a tart wine with some residual sugar and save your dry wines for the dishes without sugar. Chilis are also a bruiser, clashing with alcohol, tannin and oak.
1. Rieslingfreak No. 5 Clare Valley Riesling 2018
The chirpy lime, herb and petrol character and tight, angular structure match flavourful Thai salads punch for punch. The honeyed, delicately sweet finish keeps the wine from being dried out by any sweetness in the dishes.
2. Charles Dufour Le Champ du Clos Saignée Rosé NV
Much bolder in flavour than your average champagne, this raucous rosé oozes white pepper, wild strawberry, lavender and dried grass. Its narrow frame, glassy texture and bright acidity will cut through fatty fried dishes.
3. Smith and Sheth Cru Heretaunga Syrah 2017
New Zealand syrah, so often overshadowed by Australian shiraz, is maturing into a veritable treasure trove of delights. Meaty, exotically spiced and savoury but with some rich, mid-palate red fruit, this mixes nicely with smoky chicken and pork dishes.
Other ideas: German riesling kabinett; any saignée rosé traditional method sparkling; northern Rhône syrah or St Emilion from cooler vintages.
Three wines for a Delhi Meal
(heavy weight, intense flavour)
Sour ingredients such as vinegar and amchoor (mango powder) can make wine seem flabby; dairy can curdle in contact with too much tannin; and of course chillis, which though not ubiquitous, will blow up in your mouth if you combine them with too much alcohol, tannin or oak.
1. Baby Bandito Keep on Punching 2018
A featherweight, lightly fizzy zinger to brighten the palate, this edgy Swartland chenin buzzes with unripe apricot and a hint of green. Amchoor and tamarind have nothing on this baby.
2. Domaine de Chevalier Blanc 2016
For matching rich with rich, this Bordeaux classic is redolent of gooseberries and succulent yellow fruit, hinting at tropical fruit with a touch of custard on the nose. Think of it as a (more sophisticated) mango lassi in wine form.
3. Eden Rift Zinfandel 2016
Unlike many zinfandels, this one is ethereal, delicate and not immensely alcoholic but still lusciously textural. Rich with tender red berries and rose petal jelly, it has a chiffon texture with lacy acidity, giving a lovely lift to dishes replete with spices.
Other ideas: Vouvray or soave; any white Bordeaux, Marlborough sauvignon blanc or riper California chardonnay (just not too oaky); red Burgundy from Vosne Romanée or Chambolle Musigny from a warm vintage.