Chopsticks and Champagne: A Guide to Asian Pairings
China and Southeast Asia are home to some of the world’s greatest culinary delights, but these world-class cuisines have not grown up symbiotically with local wines to match their culinary fireworks. Consequently, the historical relationship that exists, for example, between northern Italian cuisine and the great wines of Piemonte does not have a parallel in an Asian context. However, while the great cuisines of this part of Asia have not evolved organically with local wines, this does not mean that finding the right wine match with the flavorful dishes of these cultures is an insurmountable challenge, as there are indeed a great many wines that work magically with such preparations. And finding them is relatively simple, once one discovers the key to fine wine pairing with Asian cuisine.
The key equation to take into account when searching for the right wine to pair with these cuisines is the balance between the heat element of the dish and the alcohol level of the accompanying wine. In general, the more heat a dish packs, the lower the alcohol level should be in the wine. With Thai chilies, Chinese peppers, and a myriad of beautifully complex and intensely flavored spices playing such an important role in Asian haute cuisine, the best approach to matching wines with these dishes is to opt for the lowest levels of alcohol available. These days, the best areas to search out lower alcohol wines continue to be Germany, Champagne, and some sections of the Loire Valley. While the majority of wines from these regions will be white wines, there are also several red wine options that also deliver lower alcohol levels and work nicely with Asian red meat preparations.
As much of Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine is based on fish, vegetables and poultry, white wines can handle a wide variety of Asian dishes. My favorites to serve with many of these dishes are traditionally vinified, off-dry German rieslings, which will routinely hover between seven and nine percent alcohol and marry brilliantly with these cuisines. The lower levels of alcohol help to keep the heat of spicy dishes in check, while the small amounts of residual sugar serve as a lovely counterpoint to the intensity of flavors in many of these culinary preparations. Amongst the German wines, I love the balance that is struck between Asian dishes and rieslings at the Spätlese level of ripeness, which are German wines that have fairly small amounts of residual sugar left in them, but also have wonderful synergy between their fruit, their great base of minerality and almost snappy acidities. These are wines that can emphatically handle the heat, and the fruity profiles of these wines marry beautifully with coconut milk or the fresh fruits that are so often incorporated into savory Asian dishes.
While heat and fruit elements are amongst the most common challenges in matching Asian cuisine, many dishes from these cultures (particularly in Vietnamese cooking) also incorporate a distinctly sour component which can play havoc with wine. When this is the case, the wines I tend to reach for most often are Champagne, Muscadet or other Loire Valley whites. Sauvignon Blancs from appellations such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé work well, but also do not ignore wines made from this grape from the less well-known Touraine region. Muscadet may work even better with dishes that incorporate a sour element, and from great producers such as Luneau-Papin and Marc Ollivier, the wines can offer world class complexity. However, Champagne works the best of all with these preparations, and it also adds the benefit of a more up-scale reputation which can be important in business settings. And Champagne is routinely under twelve percent in alcohol, which allows it to also work well if there happens to be a heat element in the dish as well.
If red wines are desired, Loire Valley reds, Cru Beaujolais and Rosé Champagne are my favorite options to go with Asian red meat dishes. From the Loire, I prefer the lighter reds from Saumur-Champigny or the Touraine, as their red fruity profile tends to work better with the spice elements of the cuisines. Cru Beaujolais also works well, particularly from villages such as Juliénas, St. Amour and Fleurie, which tend to be more supple and, again, red fruity. And Rosé Champagne may be the most flexible, as it works brilliantly with heat and spicy elements, and can transition beautifully from course to course in a formal dinner setting, as it is equally at home with fish, vegetable, poultry or red meat preparations.