I was at a BBQ in Singapore recently, when a gentleman started talking about what he thought was the wine industry’s biggest challenge in this part of the world.
“The problem,” he said, with an air of great authority, “is that Asia is never going to get wine like Europe does because you can’t eat it with their food.”
I stopped myself from accusing him of assuming that the entire section of the world from North Korea and across to Japan, down to Indonesia and over to India was a monoculture of homogenous food that was, by its very nature, incompatible with wine. I paused for a moment and took the more diplomatic approach.
“If you think about it, the wine and food culture haven’t grown up together in Asia. But it doesn’t mean Asian food can’t be paired with European wine in a sublime combination.”
The problem isn’t that Asian food isn’t incompatible with Western wine. The problem lies in the preconceived notion that never the twain shall meet. The solution is re-educating the public and throwing the traditional rules of wine and food pairing out the window.
The food and wine principles of the West, such as big reds with meaty dishes and rich sauces and white wines with fish — don’t necessarily work with Asian food.
The reason big reds go well with meat and rich sauces and hard cheeses is because the salt content in those foods enhance the fruit characteristics in the wine. Acidity in food also reduces overly acidic qualities in the wines. Tomatoes for example, are highly acidic, so a salty and acidic meat and tomato based sauce in an Italian dish compliments acidic Chianti beautifully.
Introduce the same red wines that go with Italian cuisine to Thai green beef curry, Korean bulgogi beef, Sezhuan hot pot and Japanese sashimi. It doesn’t seem to work does it? The heat from chili and spicy dishes increase the bitterness and astringency of red wine, taking away from its body and fruit. Red wine can also give a metallic unpleasantness to raw fish in the case of sashimi.
Tradition big reds usually paired with ‘big dishes’ aren’t the perfect match for Asian food. The varieties we should pay attention to in this market are the aromatic whites such as Riesling, Torrontes and Gewürztraminer. Alas, they are the wines that struggle for market share in a region where wine culture is only just emerging. But these light, floral wines can often be the perfect companions to spicy dishes.
Here are my recommendations for wines to pair with some of Asia’s favourite meals:
A light and floral white with light residual sugar and low alcohol such as a Gewurtztraminer from Alsace would go well. If you really only drink red, go for something with low tannin like a Beaujolais.
Dim Sum can often be fatty and oily, so go for something high in acidity. The flavours tend to be lighter, so white would be best. Try a Chablis, Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand or Casablanca Valley in Chile.
I would stick to white again, but here I think a Chardonnay/Semillion blend would pair well. Australia has plenty of great varieties from the Hunter Valley. The Maconnais region in France produces Chardonnay of a buttery style that would go well here. If you can find it, an Albarino from Rias Baixaz in Spain offers an intense peach, apricot fruit character balanced with high acidity that will cut through the oily elements of this dish pleasantly. If you’re strictly a red drinker, go for Pinot Noir from Washington State, USA or Marlborough, New Zealand.
Sushi is very delicate and often eaten with soy sauce, so lots of umami flavour. Umami increases perception of bitterness, astringency, acidity and alcohol whilst decreasing body, sweetness and fruit. My suggestion would be fruity bubbles or a glass of low-alcohol Prosecco. Alternatively, anything with lots of fruit and no tannin such as a Torrontes from Mendoza, Argentina.
Satay is rich and full flavoured, so we can consider red wines. However, there can be a slight sweetness in satay sauce which means you don’t want a completely dry red wine, as the astringency will be increased. Go for something cheap and cheerful here; a shiraz from Australia with bold fruit.
Paired thoughtfully, food from the East and wines from the West make for an interesting and eclectic marriage