Wine with Asian Food
by Randal Caparoso
always amazes me when people compare matching wine with Asian cuisines
to matching wine with European cuisines. The obvious difference
is that traditional wine styles evolved alongside European cuisines
in indigenous settings, and so the match is considerably easier.
In Asian food settings, wine is not a natural or traditional match,
so the combination can be somewhat problematic. But it is not an
impossible one. What it takes is a little more imagination.
cooking, after all, is classic and traditional in its right, and
in a different way from European cuisines. There are differences
in ingredients, of course, and also differences in the sense of
balance and harmony in the cooking style. Whereas, say, classic
Italian cooking relies on a certain purity and freshness of ingredients,
and French cooking on depth of flavor in sauces and natural stocks,
in Asia the emphasis is on the constant balancing and contrasting
of tastes and textures.
trick to matching wine with Asian-style cooking is to start with
the premise that we need wines which will emphasize a balance, as
opposed to a sheer power, of taste sensations. This is why the classic
"power" wines of the world — made from grapes like
Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay — are not easily matched with
Asian foods. Although there is nothing wrong with intensity, the
difficulty with these types of wines is that they tend to be high
in alcohol, low in acid, and (in the case of Cabernet) excessively
hard in tannin.
The best wines for Asian foods are those with moderate
levels of alcohol, softer tannin, crisper acidity, and sometimes
(but not always) a judicious amount of residual sugar. It is a question
of harmony and balance within the context of hot, sour, salty and
sweet food sensations.
From Riesling to round Italian Reds, Pinotage to Pinot Noir, there is
an abundance of wines around the world that achieve varying degrees
of balance and are quite compatible with Asian food styles. So without
going into an encyclopedia-level depth, here are some
of the more curious, and surprising, matches that work:
ASIAN FOOD AND GERMAN RIESLING
Quintessential German-style Riesling Kabinetts — penetratingly
scented, juicy rich, light and fine as silk with a whispering sweetness
balanced by perceptible acidity — are usually the first wines
cited for Asian foods. Think of how you would make a healthy stir
fry, balancing thin strips of meat with at least equal amounts of
crisp vegetables, a trace of oil balanced with soy, lemon or rice
vinegar, salt and cracked pepper, a touch of a chili sauce or multi-spice
seasonings, and served with fragrant jasmine rice. You can't go
wrong when you figure in a fragrant, deftly balanced German Riesling.
It may be understandable that someone would say that Asian cooking
is not good for wine — it is not good if you fail to apply principles
of harmony and balance in both your cooking and wine selection.
But when you do, you've got quite a dramatic match!
PAIRING ASIAN FOODS AND VIOGNIER
White wines made from the Viognier grape are actually an unorthodox
choice for Asian style foods for two reasons. They tend to be low
in acid and full in alcohol, somewhat like Chardonnay. But unlike
Chardonnay, Viogniers tend to be extremely fragrant, billowing with
exotic fruit, honeysuckle-like perfumes, and suggestions of violet
and white pepper. The finer styles of California-grown Viognier
are amplified by plush, mouthwatering-almost sweet-dense and silken
cooking in particular can be tilted towards sweetness balanced by
a mild bitterness and saltiness, such as is found in duck with hoisin
plum sauces, chicken in gingery or citrusy syrups, and savory sauced
napa cabbage, choi sum, mustard greens, and other toothsome vegetables.
In Southeast Asia, fish is often coated with curries and coconut
milk, or strong pastes made from coriander root and peppercorns,
or it is stuffed with scallions, fatty pork, garlic cloves and even
spicy-hot Serrano chilies. In these food contexts, the aggressively
full, hefty, peppery qualities of Viognier are often superior to
the more feeble alcohol and higher acid qualities of Riesling.
doesn't work, however, in cases where dishes are overly sweet, or
numbingly hot (in other words, badly balanced Asian cooking). But
when full-flavored Asian dishes are prepared correctly, a good,
balanced Viognier can contribute an exotic note of its own to the
The jammy, lusciously raspberry-like, black-peppery spiced aromas
and flavors of first-rate California Zinfandel are a sensible, if
unorthodox, choice with barbecued pork or beef ribs coated in sweet
or spicy marinades. This is especially true with Zinfandels of moderate-
to medium-tannin structure and when Asian chili seasonings or sauces
are used. A proper Zinfandel has the red-wine tannin to handle fatty,
charred meats, yet the roundness and fruitiness to enhance, rather
than fight, the hot spices.
peppery-spiced Zinfandels are also surprising with pure forms of
Southeast Asian cooking, such as grilled coriander chicken served
with sweet, salty, or spicy dipping sauces (nam jeem); raw beef
with pepper salt; beef stir fried with spicy ginger; and hot pot
dishes such as eggplant (cooked with ground pork, coriander, dried
shrimp, garlic, and shallots) served with fried beef jerky. Whenever
there is a presence of peppercorns, some vinegary zest, or slightly
hot garlic, chile, and gingery sensations, a zesty, peppery, fruity
Zinfandel finds another surprising food element.
ASIAN FOOD PAIRED WITH SOUTHERN FRENCH WINES AND BLENDS
The entire premise of balancing Southern French varietal reds — Syrah
for its floral, spicy, structural fullness; Grenache for its plush,
mildly peppery red fruitiness; and Mourvedre for its meaty, dark
fruitiness — draws comparisons to the balancing of sensations
in Asian-style cooking. Beef or pork ribs in sweet, salty, peppery,
vinegary, spicy-hot, and even downright sticky sauces tend to be
problematic for Bordeaux varietals, but not so much for the Southern
advantage of Southern French varietals and blends is that their
tannins are moderated enough so that they don't taste bitter in
relation to sweet, sour, salty or spicy sauces, yet they retain
enough tannin to digest meat fats. Then there is the factor of umami;
specifically, the reaction of salt and acidity when activated by
foods high in amino acids (such as mushrooms, aged cheeses, and
sea vegetables), which effectively reduces the sensation of bitterness.
When wine is served in this context, there is a greater chance that
the wine will taste "milder" and dishes more savory.
fact, pure-varietal Syrahs help the palate achieve umami-related
sensory adaptations with considerable ease, especially the extremely
intense, luxurious, almost sweetly fruited (yet completely dry),
dense, supple styles of Shiraz from Australia. The dominant style
of contemporary Australian cuisine, for instance, is strongly Asian
influenced, and thus completely conducive to the wines of that country!
ASIAN FOOD MATCHED WITH ROUND ITALIAN REDS
The range of red wines made from these grapes, not only in Italy
but also now in California, is astounding. Each has its charms:
Dolcetta, a zesty black fruitiness; Barbera, an even zestier-edged,
palate-sticking fruitiness; and Sangiovese, a mildly zesty, cherry-fruit
complexity. All are marked by qualities of slightly elevated acidity,
low to medium tannin, and earth-related characteristics manifested
in multiple ways, from burning leaves and licorice to roasted meat
and leather-like nuances.
these structural and aroma-flavor advantages, there are few wines
that perform as well with Chinese- or Southeast Asianstyle
hot pots of beef or pork; especially when punctuated by peppercorns,
garlic, or scallions; the licorice-like tastes of star anise, cilantro,
or coriander; and sacred basil. Then there is the vast range of
small production Italian and California wines that utilize these
varietals as blending elements: Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon,
Sangiovese with Tempranillo, Barbera with Nebbiolo, Zinfandel with
Barbera, etc. While unorthodox, the good thing about these innovative
"Italianate" wines is that they fit in with many of the
unorthodox styles of fusion cooking being done all around the world.
thinking is this: if Asian cooking is untraditional with wine, the
best wines for Asian foods may very well be the most untraditional