What wine goes with Asian food’ is a topic that crops up three or four times a week so now instead of spending half the evening debating I can simply refer folk to forkncork.com. But before I go too far down the track let me say this is only the considered opinion of a thirsty, greedy geezer with a good few gastronomic miles on the clock. So if you’re quaffing Amarone with your tom yam gung and enjoying it don’t call me a prat.
But do get on the forum and tell me why you think it’s brilliant.
No subject causes diners so much anxiety as the pairing of wine with food. And never is the pain so intense as when the food in question is Asian. What do you drink with your lamb Madras or your Cantonese crispy roast pork? Many wine and some food writers opt to duck that question, referring you instead to beer, fruit juices or yoghurt- based lassi, all very well unless, like most of us, you prefer to drink wine with food.
There are three schools of thought on wine and food pairings. There are the people who say “drink what you like to drink” and I have some sympathy with this view. There is no wine that I would never pair with Asian food, except maybe Muscadet, too lean, or young Savennières too austere.
The second school follows the ‘rules’ developed by wine writers over many years which lay down specific matches – red wine with red meat, white wine with fish. Unfortunately by the mid-20th century these rules became set in stone, offering no solution to a diner seeking wines to complement the vibrant international cuisine rapidly becoming commonplace in restaurants and homes.
The third school, to which on balance I belong, took pains to find elemental matches for these ‘new’ flavours while, at the same time, stressing that there are no perfect pairings and few imperfect ones, or in a nutshell “anything goes, but some things go better than others”.
With most l Asian food I try to choose wines that are fruity and not overly tannic or acidic, the exception being onion-heavy curries where tannins help counteract the richness. Any sweetness in the food, I counterbalance with big, soft rounded flavours – Semillon, Viognier or Gruner Veltliner perhaps in whites and Merlot, Grenache or Zinfandel in reds. I also like the ability of the more rounded New World sparklers to tame fiery heat.
Scientists say the tongue’s taste receptors can detect five aspects of flavour: sweetness, sourness, salinity and bitterness, plus the umami, best described perhaps as a kind of ‘feel good factor’. Similarly, when seeking wine to go with Asian food I like to separate the food into its essential components. The main ingredient, meat or vegetarian in a dish plays a significant role in deciding what I do or don’t drink. For example there’s something in the slightly-sweet succulence of lamb that murders white wine – unless it’s Australian Riesling. The delicacy of breast of chicken, even when teamed with a salty black bean sauce is definitely enhanced by big, buttery oaked Chardonnay. With the secondary ingredients and the saucing there are few certainties. Except that rich casseroles kill delicate creamy whites like Chablis. Conversely, heavily tannic Cabernet Sauvignons tend to flatten cream or yoghurt-based sauces.
It’s when you come to spices that the partnering process gets complicated. Chilli, in particular, is hard to deal with. Californian Zinfandel would be my preference with young, high in alcohol Aussie Shiraz as an alternative. New Zealand Sauvignon blanc stands up well to ginger and coriander. With regard to texture, the heavier the food, the heavier the wine is not a bad generalisation – rib-sticking sauces are best matched with beefy reds.
The sweet/sour combination, so popular in Chinese food, goes well with Gewürztraminer, according to conventional wisdom. However, not everyone appreciates this highly spiced and perfumed grape and as alternatives I would suggest one of the new unoaked breed of Australian Chardonnay or a Viognier, Rousanne or Marsanne from Southern France.
Lastly, a new breed of Indian (and in this I include Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepali) chefs have emerged, on a mission to develop the cuisine by exploring regional culinary styles or introducing modern influences. Their recipes are often subtler and less highly seasoned, making it easier to flout ‘the rules’ and drink whatever you like.
Overall, don’t be afraid to experiment. And don’t take things too seriously. Wine and food are fun. So pairing wine and food should be fun, right?
Here are some suggestions
Mild vegetable curries
White: Semillon/Chardonnay, Chenin blanc Red: Beaujolais, Fleurie , New World Pinot Noir
Mild meat curries
White: Semillon-Chardonnay blends, Gruner Veltliner Red: Valpolicella, Merlot
Pullao and biryani
White: Alsace Riesling, Pinot gris Red: Chianti, young Australian Shiraz
Creamy meat curries, korma
White: Gewürztraminer, whites from the Rhône Red: Any light red or rosé
Dry curries, bhuna
White: Chablis, New World Sauvignon blanc Red: Cabernet sauvignon or Syrah
Medium curries with heavy onion base, dohpiaza
White: Australian Riesling Red: Amarone, Northern Rhône, Bordeaux
Medium tomato-based curries, rogan josh
White: Gavi, dry white Bordeaux Red: Chianti, Merlot
Medium coconut-based curries
White: Chardonnay Red: Pinotage
Medium fruit based curries, dhansak
White: Semillon, Gruner Veltliner Red: Merlot
White: oaked chardonnay Red: Zinfandel (or drink beer)
Sweet and sour flavours
White: Semillon, Viognier, Gruner Veltliner Red: Southern Rhône, Zinfandel
Roasted pork, chicken and duck
White: oaked Chardonnay Red: aged Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot noir
Steamed fish, crab, lobster with ginger and scallion
White: Chablis, Sancerre Red: Chianti
Prawns and other shellfish
White: Chablis, Macon Red: Rioja, Valpolicella
Chicken in black bean sauce
White: oaked New World Chardonnay Red: Merlot
Pork or beef in black bean sauce
White: oaked New World Chardonnay Red: New World Cabernet Sauvignon, Rioja
Meat and fruit combinations (lychees, pineapple)
White: New Zealand Sauvignon blanc Red: Merlot
Noodle dishes, mild
White: Alsace Riesling, Pinot blanc Red: Southern Italian
Noodle dishes, spicy
White: Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris Red: Chilean Merlot
Casseroles from Northern China and Mongolia
White: unoaked Chardonnay Red: Pinot Noir, Syrah
Satay, barbecued meats
White: Gewurztraminer, oaked New World Chardonnay Red: Chilean Cabernet, Chianti
Green and red curries
White: oaked New World Chardonnay, Gruner Veltliner Red: Rioja (not sure why but it works)