Finding the perfect match

Choosing a wine to complement the pungency of southeast Asian cuisine is more than simply a matter of red or white.

Petko Kisyov
August 1, 2009

Choosing a wine to complement the pungency of southeast Asian cuisine is more than simply a matter of red or white.

Selecting wines to accompany food is an art rather than a science but in order to get it right it’s important to have an understanding of the local gastronomic tradition. So what imported and classic wines make a good match for Khmer cuisine? The blending of spices, lime juice, exotic fruits and vegetables with stronger flavours creates a delicate balance of salty, sweet, sour and bitter that makes for an interesting culinary experience, but not one in which wines have up to now played a part.

By the nose: writer and wine enthusiast Petko Kisyov. (Ryan Plummer/SEA Globe)
By the nose: writer and wine enthusiast Petko Kisyov. (Ryan Plummer/SEA Globe)

Over the centuries as populations have shifted, customs, lifestyle and traditions have moved with them. This mix of cultures extends to the kitchen, resulting in a sharing of ideas, an introduction of new produce and the melding of different customs into original dishes. Choosing your wine you must appreciate that most regional dishes are quite spicy, so you need a spicy, rich wine to go with the food. On the other hand, bearing in mind the hot and humid climate, a well-chilled white or rosé often seems the most attractive option.

Curry or kari dishes are served everywhere and offer a huge assortment and variety from different kinds of meat and fish to vegetarian options. In this case it’s a good idea to try to match the red meat with red wines and the white meat with white wines but on every occasion remember that the wines have to be spicy.

The Australian, spicy shiraz is perfect or you can opt for wines based on the mourvedre grape, which is even spicier. One rule of thumb is that the spicier the food the spicier the wine, so when choosing your mourvedre it’s worth remembering that wines from Bandol AC, southern France, are made from 100% mourvedre, the Languedoc-Roussillon AC of Minervois is based on grenache but has a good percentage of mourvedre as has the Australian coupage GSM (grenache, shiraz, mourvedre). If you are looking for a white to go with your chicken curry, the concentrated, aromatic flavours of gewurztraminer from Alsace perfectly complement this and many other southeast Asian dishes.

Fish and seafood lovers should also stick to spicy whites – gewurztraminer again or if the food is hot-spiced, pick up a Miguel Torres gewurztraminer-riesling from Chile. On other occasions the best matches for fish and seafood are the classic, crispy burgundy chardonnays such as chablis and pouilly-fuisse or, if you can afford it, big guns such as puligny-montrachet. Be prepared, though, since that last one will burn a sizeable hole of several hundred dollars in your pocket.

Alsace's Gewurztraminer grapes with a spicy fish amok (Xin Yi Yev & Sandra Pang)
Alsace’s Gewurztraminer grapes with a spicy fish amok (Xin Yi Yev & Sandra Pang)

If you are going for fresh chilli-less salads, crisp whites are perfect. The best match will be a brisk, elegant and fresh New Zealand sauvignon blanc, though it might be too acidic if very young, in which case I recommend the classic Loire valley whites such as sancerre or pouilly-fume, both of which are made from sauvignon blanc. Another option is a South African chenin blanc, which is a fairly dry wine with a neutral palate for better expression of the less intense flavours of the food.

When  it comes to the region’s signature dishes loc lac, stir-fried beef with oyster sauce and green peppercorn, is quite spicy, although not hot, and the best vinous match is chateauneuf-du-pape, a rich and spicy classic from the southern Rhone. If this seems like an expensive option, a good New World red will do the job. These include cabernet sauvignon, merlot from any new world country, carmenere from Chile and malbec from Argentina, though I wouldn’t recommend Australian shiraz, which might be a touch too spicy.

If the heat turns you off red wines and on to whites, then you might consider a New World, full-bodied chardonnay, particularly some of the Californians which have lush, velvety flavours. If you like to compromise, then choose a rich, full-bodied rosé such as tavel or lirac from France or a New World grenache-based pink.

Nam prik is an almost universally available Thai condiment. Served with vegetables, raw, boiled or fried in batter, alone or in combination, this pungent combination of chilli, garlic, tamarind and shrimp paste was alleged to have caused a terror alert in 2007 when the fumes released during its preparation in a London restaurant were thought to herald a chemical weapons attack. 

This sharp and spicy paste needs a strong and rich wine; I would prefer the deep purple opulence of a good St Emilion premier cru or a good Italian merlot such “L’Apparita” from Castello di Ama, Tuscany, which is a jewel of a medium-bodied wine with silky tannins.

If you are in Malaysia you have to try the rendang negri sembilan (a beef and spice preparation). This dish is a perfect partner for a young Tuscan sangiovese, with its tomato savouriness and herbal tones; a chianti classico will fit the bill perfectly without breaking the bank. If you are feeling like pushing the boat out, try a reasonably priced super Tuscan such as sassaia, a wine of great pedigree and character.

For a special occasion – or just for the hell of it – you could consider splashing out on one of the big guns such as Antinori’s tignanello, a complex wine with nicely harmonious aromas of tobacco, curry powder and blackberry. It has enough of a hint of sweet tannins to complement the sweetness of the dish, yet enough body not to be overwhelmed by the spiciness.

In these more health-conscious times, desserts are often overlooked, but it’s worth considering something sweet to finish off a meal. Although for many they are an acquired taste, southeast Asian confections are some of the most delicious anywhere in the world. Coconut custard, sticky rice and mango, mung bean rolls, banana pudding with tapioca, rice balls with mung bean filling in ginger syrup, all are firm favourites with those who have a sweet tooth.

So if you decide to sweeten up your night, don’t forget that there are wines to go with it. Chateau d’Yquem, one of the best-known sauternes and celebrated for its complexity, concentration and sweetness is always a good, though pricey option. 

Tokaji Aszu, proclaimed as the “Wine of Kings and King of Wines” by Louis XIV, is another high-status sweet wine that is certainly worth a look. This Hungarian jewel is easier to get since the demise of the Soviet bloc; its sweetness and unique taste is prized by aficionados. Sweetness comes at a price, though, since the conditions required to produce the quality grapes results in smaller yields, but you can also find more reasonably priced Australian sweet rieslings or Canadian and German ice wines.

If you are overwhelmed by the choice, remember there is champagne or a good-quality champenoise that can accompany every dish. So any time you are not sure what to choose, do not hesitate to go for bubbles; it’s a special kind of magic.

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