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Wine and Asian food: do they match?

One of the long-running debates in the wine and food matching literature is whether it is possible to pair wines with highly spiced Asian foods with any degree of success. Bear in mind that in the UK, we tend to eat out in Thai, Chinese and Indian restaurants just as often as we do in French, Italian or modern British restaurants, so just what should we be drinking on these occasions? Added to this, with the rise of fusion cuisine, it is increasingly likely that when we dine out we will be encountering highly spiced dishes, which traditionally are wine unfriendly. Consequently, I thought it would be worth exploring potential wine matches for Asian foods. I come at this issue as a bit of a sceptic -- I have always thought that spicy food is death to wine matching -- but one who is willing to be proved wrong.

Wine with Chinese food

The food
We cheated, and opted for Marks and Spencers new takeaway range:
Singapore Noodles
Egg Fried Rice
Hot and Sour Chicken
Beef in Black Bean Sauce
Prawn Spring Rolls

I selected three wines that I thought might do a good job. The first two wines claim to be made specifically to complement spicy Pacific Rim and Asian cuisine.

Fetzer Viognier 1998, North Coast, California
Yellow gold colour. Lovely nose of peach, grapefruit and apricot, with an esoteric floral element. On the palate this is full and rich, with plenty of fruit (mango and apricot), some spice and a touch of oak. Very strongly flavoured, bold wine. Slightly sweet finish. Very good. (£7.99 Tesco) 2/00

Fetzer Dry Gewürztraminer 1998, Mendocino, California
Strong nose of nuts (in particular, coconut!) with some spicy elements. Very distinctive, powerful palate, with more of the nuttiness, some litchee and some floral notes. A dollop of residual sugar gives this a lovely fat texture. Interesting stuff, but quite odd. Good. (£6.99 Tesco) 2/00

Spice Route 'Long Walk' Sauvignon blanc 1998, Malmesbury, South Africa
Lovely, fresh Sauvignon with all the aromatics associated with this grape (gooseberry, eldeflowers, cut green peppers), together with a rich texture and some residual sugar. Really nicely put together in a modern style. Nicely poised. (£5.99, Tesco) 2/00

Matching the wines and the food

On their own, all three wines are a little bit 'full on'. Let's see how they paired with the food.

  • Gewürztraminer: Really excellent match. The intensity of the wine and its intrinsic spicy nuttiness couple well with the rich texture and flavour of the food. The two work well together.
  • Viognier: Again, the rich texture of the wine offsets the spicy food well. Some of this wines perfumed subtlety is lost with the rich flavours, but a good match none the less.
  • Sauvignon blanc: Another good match: the drier character of the wine helps it achieve a good balancing act, with its acidity cutting through the richness of the food. But overall not as good a match as that achieved with the two Fetzer wines.

Verdict: I found it surprising that these wines matched reasonably well with the Chinese dishes: I would be happy to drink any of these wines in a restaurant alongside spicy dishes of this nature. I'm not sure there is much synergy going on here (the wine and the food mutually enhancing each other to produce an experience greater than the sum of its parts) but the combination does work.


Wine with Curry
I've read conflicting views on whether it is possible to match curries (whether Thai or Indian) with wine. Personally, I remain sceptical: I've never found that this is a combination that has any merit at all. But I try to be open-minded, and so I attempted to pair three wines with a spicy lamb biryani. I won't bother going into detail, but the intensely spiced food totally obliterated my ability to get anything interesting from the wines at all. Of all the spices, the worst offender when it comes to wine matching is probably capsaicin (the 'heat' in chilli peppers). This is actually an irritant poison, and simply wipes out the response of taste buds, with the result that any fine distinctions or nuances in the wine are no longer detectable. So, for the majority of curries, I'd recommend a cold beer as an accompaniment. If you insist on serving wines, then make it something inexpensive: don't waste your money on an expensive wine that will be completely overshadowed by the intense flavours of the food.