Musings on the Vitis Vinifera

The last thing one needs to hear when trying out wine in a local - read Asian - context is to match red meat with red wines and white meat with white wines. After all, most of us are familiar with the tremendous amount of complexity in Asian fare, such that a typical white meat such as fish can involve such different flavours that it might be better off paired with a light red. Yet how does one make a choice, given the vast array of choices available when speaking of Asian food? Although not the last word on the subject, this article aims to provide some rough guidelines of matching local food with wine.

Some rough rules of thumb, based on the following (broad) classifications of wines:

  • Dry and Tart REDS: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah/Shiraz, most Italian reds
  • Dry but Fruity REDS: Merlot, Beaujolais, Zinfandel
  • Dry and Tart WHITES: Sauvignon Blanc, most Champagnes, most Italian whites
  • Dry but Fruity WHITES: Chardonnay, Semillon
  • Slightly Sweet WINES: most Rieslings & Gewurtraminers. Some sparkling, especially Asti (Italian), Sekt (German) and Australian.
  • Sweet WINES: Sauternes, Late Harvest Riesling, Tokaji Aszu, Port & Sherry

Dry tart reds go well with strong meats (beef steak, lamb - syrah and lamb, yum). I am thinking here of most Indian dishes (which feature lamb) and many Thai dishes (which feature beef). Stir fried beef, however, might go well with lighter, fruiter reds as well. For the Chinese-style stir-fried mushrooms, I find that the generally lighter body of Pinots go well with the flavours there. I would pair dry tart whites with most seafood (and also Chinese style stir-fry). In fact, if going out for a Chiense-style dinner, I would more often than not grab a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, as it seems to be the most versatile wine for the large spread of dishes in a typical Chinese meal.

Dry fruity reds, other than with beef stir-fry, could be paired with lighter meats (chicken, even maybe salmon, as well as cheese). I find that sauces and gravies from most Asian dishes would overwhelm the delicate flavour of a light fruity red, with the exception of the Merlot. I would tag this final wine with dishes from a more Malay setting, perhaps even Indonesia food. Dry fruity whites go well with fish, in general. I have also enjoyed it with seafood, although the possibly spicy nature of most Asian seafood makes crisp whites a better match. Steamed fish, or drunken prawns, I would imagine, would be well complemented by fruity whites.

I would have light sweets alone (or with ice cream and not-so-sweet desserts - eg. apple strudel and lighter, fluffier cheesecakes - say, Fiesta), although I once had a slightly sweet white with crayfish, and it was quite an unforgettable experience. For that matter, the more adventurous might want to try non-spicy seafoods with a slightly sweet wine. For sweets, they usually go best with sweet desserts, especially sweeter cakes (i think of Tiramisu and New York cheesecake). Local desserts like chendol would also go well, since neither would overpower the other. Try Tokaji with Durian ice-cream - a friend swears by it.

Some other pointers:

Gewurtztraminer & Co.: Wine books used to dismiss the whole question by recommending this one wine as the only match for Asian dishes. This is misleading - and possibly even plain wrong for some dishes. This arose from the fact that "Gewurz" means "spicy" in German, many tended to assume that spicy food would go well with Gewurtztraminer. Although the actual wine is more reminiscent of tropical fruit than tropical fare, it actually doesn't go too badly with Asian seafood. This arises because gewurztraminers are often off dry, and this makes them a decent choice with Asian dishes that have sweet or fruity flavors. For the same reason, Riesling - also typically made off-dry - can be good companions with your sweet and sour pork or chilli crab.

Sparking Wine: It might surprise many that champagne actually marries well with a wide range of Asian food, especially if the food is spicy, since the bubbles tend to quench a little of that spicy heat. I can imagine some of the cheaper sparking wines, especially from Spain (Cava) or sparkling wines not from the Champagne region (say, Cremants from Loire). The analogy here is to imagine an almost ice-cold bubbly going down with the spice, somewhat like how a beer neutralises many of the sharp tangs in chilli.

East Meets West: Even with exotic fare, the old "red with red" rule often works. It is possible to match Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah (Shiraz) with a beef stir-fry or paired Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc with shrimp in lobster sauce or even with sushi. Take the sauce into account - soy-based flavors can do delightful things with an older Cabernet, and aromatic Asian spices may perform an international dance with an oaky Rioja or Shiraz - and don't forget that there's plenty of margin for error. Most wines work well with most dishes, and really disastrous combinations are very rare.

Alternative Beverages: Particularly with hot-and-spicy fare, if you are not predisposed to chilli heat, it might be advisable to skip the wine altogether. This applies in particular to extremely hot food, which simply doesn't go with wine in general. You really don't want to pour alcohol on a burn, and wine with a potent curry or peppery Thai dish may turn that pleasant chilli-pepper glow into something that feels more like second-degree charring. In this case, I will pour a cold beer, or even turn to an ethnic, non-alcoholic dairy drinks like the yogurt-based Indian lassi or the cream-laced Thai or Vietnamese iced coffee, drinks that soothe rather than heightening the flames, usually provide viable substitutes to wine.

Further Reading

The best bet for brushing up on food and wine pairings is the extremely well-written Wine with Food, by Joanna Simon. A more pithy read is Linda Johnson-Bell's Pairing Wine and Food. For more information on wine in general, Jancis Robinson's encyclopaedic Oxford Companion to Wine. To obtain a consumer's perspective for buying wine, I recommend Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide.

This article was written in response to questions from a friend.