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Pairing Wine with Asian Food

by Randal Caparoso

What do you pair with a spicy Asian fish dish?

It 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.

Asian-style 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.

The 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 textured flavors.

Chinese 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.

Viognier 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 overall experience.

ASIAN FOOD AND ZINFANDEL

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.

But 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 French.

The 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.

In 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.

Given these structural and aroma-flavor advantages, there are few wines that perform as well with Chinese- or Southeast Asian–style 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.

The thinking is this: if Asian cooking is untraditional with wine, the best wines for Asian foods may very well be the most untraditional blends.

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(Updated: 09/07/12 DL)

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