Pairing Wine with Thai Food
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Days late, real life is taking over blogging life again, but hopefully still ok. Alberto and Lenn, creators of two of the most infectious memes in Food Blogosphere, Is My Blog Burning and Wine Blogging Wednesday, joined forces to host a food blog meme to end all memes, where food bloggers are supposed to blog about wine, and wine bloggers to talk about food.
Well, I fully intended to join, but other eventful events caught up with me and so I am days late….not that’s my being late is new or anything. Anyway, here is my entry for Fabulous Favorites.
Instead of recommending one particular wine with a specific dish, I’m going to take this opportunity to answer the most frequent wine question from Chez Pim readers: what wine to drink with Thai food?
Frankly, Thai food –with rampant spices, out of control heat, bitter herbs, cloying sweetness, sometimes all of those qualities in one dish- makes for a rather tough match with wine. But don’t despair, good matches are not beyond the realm of possibility. I mean, if Tom Cruise can make a baby, then anything is possible, no?
There are a few keys I use in matching wine with Thai food. They’ve worked pretty well for me, so hopefully they’ll work for you too. These are not rules, mind you. I hardly believe in rigid rules about anything, well, unless I’m the one making them. These are merely guidelines. Experiment with them. See what works for you. Wine and food are for fun, after all. So have fun!
Look for a little sweetness.
It’s become almost a reflex for me to reach for slightly sweet Rieslings when serving Thai food, and for very good reasons. The slight sweetness and floral notes in Rieslings and similar wines (like Gewurztraminer) match very well with the many flavors of Thai food. The sugar adds to the mouth-feel of wine and mitigates the effect of chilli and spice on the palate. Sweetness in wine also works well with the savory dishes that are on the sweet side in Thai cuisine.
Find the tropics in the nose.
Well, not your nose surely, but the nose of a wine. Some wines smell of tropical flowers or exotic fruits, which, predictably enough, will match well with the same notes in Thai dishes.
Avoid tannin at all cost.
Ok, this one probably most resembles a rule: never drink tannic wines with Thai food. The prominent flavors of Thai food -spicy, hot, and sour- are all horrible for big, tannic wines. Spice, chilli-heat, and acidity will make tannic wine taste bitter, ruining the experience with both the food and the wine. So, keep your fancy Bordeaux and expensive Cabs away from Thai food.
A little sparkly is good for the soul.
Sparkling wine works well with Thai food, especially all the fried things, which are everywhere in Thai cuisine. The bubbles cut through the grease and refresh the palate. Slightly off-dry Champagne or sparkling wine can also be versatile for many types of Thai dishes. It even works well with creamy curry, as long as it’s not super crazy spicy. If you’re thinking about just one bottle of wine besides a Riesling to match the entire meal of Thai dishes, pick a bottle of floral Champagne, it will surprise you.
Good acidity is good.
Thai food has a strong acidic element, especially Yum-type salads or the sour curries like Gang Som which are often dominated by lime juice or tamarind. For these types of dishes, it’s important that the wine you choose has a good level of acidity to support the acid in the food. Flat, flabby, low-acidity wine will be overwhelmed and turn even flabbier and less acidic when paired with these sour dishes. Acidic wines are also good with salty food, so they pair well with salty Thai dishes.
So, this may sound a little counter-intuitive here, but even when you choose slightly sweet, off-dry wines, make sure that they have a good level of acidity supporting in the background.
Be a little careful with acidic wine and Thai food though, very sweet dishes will turn acidic wines even leaner and more acidic, which could be unpleasant. So, if you like your Pad Thai cloying sweet, then I would pick slightly sweet wine to go with it.
Not a lot of oak.
Oaky wine, like a lot of California Chardonnays, are not a very good match with Thai food. The vanilla flavor in oaky Chardonnay doesn’t go well with exotic herbs and spices in Thai food. Stay away from them.
Now that we are done with some guidelines, we can talk about some wine varietals to go with Thai food. Again, these are just some suggestions, covering both the obvious and the more obscure. Play around with some of them and see what suits you best.
Riesling (and other German/Alsace whites like Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris)
A no brainer, really. Go with fruity and floral nose rather than the musky note that some Rieslings have. Riesling labels can be hard to fathom, look for Kabinett (generally drier) or Spätlese (usually slightly sweeter). Auslese, depending on makers, migth be a little too sweet to pair with savory dishes. Or ask your wine merchant, she could be able to help you choose.
A cross between Riesling and Sylvaner. Scheurebe is crispy, fruity and very aromatic. It will work well here as well.
Loire whites: Vouvray, Savennières, and Saumur Blanc
Crisp minerality and citrus notes in these wines work well with sour Yum salads. Some Saumur Blanc with good structure (like my favorite Chateau Yvonne) would make a good match for coconut-based dishes, again as long as they are not extremely spicy. The minerality in these white wines from the Loire Valley also go very well with Thai seafood dishes.
Champagne and sparkling rosé, as long as they are not too oaky.
Lambrusco, an obscure sparkling wine from Italy. Lambrusco is fruity and slightly sweet, and will be a fun and unexpected match with Thai food.
Brachetto, another obscure Italian sparkler, this one a rosé from the Piemonte region. Pick a Brachetto that is not too sweet.
Juicy and low-tannin Saumur-Champigny is a good choice if you want red wine.
Light and fruity Cru Beaujolais is not a bad choice. I’m not a big fan of Beaujolais Nouveau so I can’t really recommend it.
Very classic style of low tannin and ripe Barbera can also be a good match.
This is far, far from an exhausted list, I’m sure. I’m only talking about the wines I know. Feel free to suggest your own successful matches, that’s what the comment section is for!