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Home | Food and Wine Pairing | The Challenge of Asian Food and Wine . . .

The Challenge of Asian Food and Wine Pairing

October 1, 2013 Michael Cavanagh - Contributing Editor

Asian cuisine, while incredibly vibrant and delicious, can often pose problems on the dinner table in regards to picking a wine to accompany it.  The various spices native to the Far East can challenge the components of an array of wines, especially tannins and alcohol.  That wine does not pair up easily to Asian dishes shouldn't come as a surprise.  The relative dearth of local Asian wine production eliminated the centuries of experimentation with food pairing that occurred in Europe, a process that set the construct for pairing wine with food.  But now that both Asian cuisine and wine have traveled the world over, the question becomes how best to match the two.

Generally speaking, the components that should be considered when pairing Asian dishes with wine are the spice/heat level, and textures of the food.  If a dish is particularly spicy you may want to consider an off-dry or semi-sweet wine to counterbalance the heat.  Also, if the dish is on the lighter side with delicate flavors, a similarly styled wine will not overpower any of the nuances on the palate.  But a dish that has a bit more heft to it should be paired with a wine that can stand up to the texture, and provide a bit of a palate cleanser.  As for particular wines and styles, check out the guide below.

White Wine - For the vast majority of Asian dishes, white wine provides the best match.  As mentioned above, the higher level of tannins (as well as the fuller body) of red wine can often clash with the spice and heat of Asian cuisine.  Conversely, lighter bodied white wines have relatively little tannin and won't cause such a commotion on the palate.

A good place to start when thinking of pairing white wine with Asian cuisine is Germany, and it's most popular grape - Riesling.  The combination of natural high acidity and powerful aromatics can match quite nicely with Asian dishes, which often provide complex layers of aromas and flavors.  German Riesling provides a compelling partner not only because of the grape's natural ability to pair with food, but also because of the style of the wines made there.  German Rieslings are, for the most part, lower in alcohol (8-10%) than many white wines, and can have a slight bit of pleasant sweetness that will counterbalance any spice quite nicely.  Thai dishes, which may be the toughest to pair, work especially well with German Rieslings because the complex flavors of the food will not be outdone by the wine.  In addition to Germany, Rieslings from Australia and Washington State can be good choices, especially if you're looking for a more fruit-forward and sweeter style of wine to match any abundant heat from an Asian dish.

Next door in France, there are a number of options to choose from, but the best may be from three different regions.  In Alsace, Gewurztraminer is a logical choice, especially considering the grape may reach its highest expression in the region, which incidentally, was a part of Germany until the early 20th century.  Similar to Riesling, Gewurztraminer provides the diner with an abundance of aromatics and often a touch of sweetness.  It may also pair better with dishes that have more citrus notes, as Gewurztraminer is a bit less acidic than Riesling and you don't want to overwhelm your palate with acidity.  Also in France and near the German border, the famed region of Champagne gives the option of bubbly at the dinner table.  High in acidity and slightly sweet, Champagne is a great choice for Japanese cuisine that features wasabi.  The final stop in France for Asian pairing is the AOC of Vouvray in the Loire Valley.  Made from Chenin Blanc, the wines of Vouvray come in an array of styles, many that offer differing degrees of sweetness, and offer a fuller and rounder body to match the density of heavier dishes.  This last aspect makes these wines a great choice for dishes such as Chinese stir-frys that carry a bit of spice and heat.

Lastly, another popular white wine to pair with Asian food (as well as a wide range of cuisine) is the pride of Austria- Grüner Veltliner. Similar to Riesling, this white grape has a high level of natural acidity, thus explaining why it makes such a good match for food.  But Grüner Veltliner is almost always found dry, and has much more texture than Riesling, both important aspects to consider when pairing with food.  It is also usually made in two different styles, one of which is light, crisp and sometimes has a bit of effervescence.  Look for this style to match with Asian dishes that are spicy but not overly hot.

Rosé Wine - This is yet another excellent style of wine that can be quite versatile when pairing with Asian cuisine.  The main focus should be deciding whether you want to pick a lighter-bodied dry Rosé (like those from Provence in France) or a richer, fruit-forward, and sometimes off-dry version from the New World.  The recurring themes of matching the body of the wine with the texture of the dish (i.e. one shouldn't overpower the other) and counter-balancing heat or spice with fruitiness and sweetness still apply.

Red Wine - This is where the options of pairing wine with Asian cuisine quickly become limited.  Tannins, especially those that come from oak barrels, can intensify spice and heat on the palette, overwhelming the subtleties and nuances of both the food and the wine.  Nevertheless, there are certain Asian dishes that call for a moderately tannic red wine.  These often revolve around grilled meat, dishes that have a high fat content and those that feature garlic.  The challenge becomes finding a wine that can stand up to the heft of the meal without bringing overbearing tannins to the table.  One such option can be Zinfandel, which offers a robust body but is not dominated by tannins.  Many Zinfandel wines from California offer a fruit-forward style that will pair nicely with Asian cuisine such as Korean BBQ dishes.

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