It’s hard for wine drinkers tutored in European pairings to be instinctive about a good wine when what’s on the table is chile-laced noodles, Thai green curry, or Vietnamese pho. Even a now-common dish like chicken satay with peanut sauce presents a whole new challenge in thinking about how flavors work together.
Asian dishes are, after all, often about drama. Staple ingredients like soy and fish sauce, chile paste, ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and hoisin all pack a punch. Spices and herbs such as cardamom, cumin, coriander, five-spice powder, and garam masala are not meek in aroma or flavor, especially since they’re often used in combination.
Wonderful as they are in an Asian dishes, flavors like these can flatten out many wines, rob them of their fruity characters, and make them taste dull, hollow, bitter, oaky, or alcoholic.
What’s the wine lover to do?
After years of experimentation, here’s what I’ve come to know:
- The wines that work are not likely to be Chardonnays. Most New World Chardonnays, which are usually oaky and toasty to begin with, can taste like a two-by-four when paired with Chinese, Thai, or Indian seasonings. An exception might be made for Australian Chardonnays, which are less obviously oaky, and therefore can work better.
- They are also not Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Tannic wines like these fight with strong flavors, and the wines lose; they end up tasting bitter, lean, and mean.
- The best wines for most Asian dishes are high in acidity. Snappy, clean, high acid wines have a kind of refreshing vibrancy that’s a great counterpoint to the flavors. Sauvignon Blanc, with its penetrating acidity and clean tastes, is a good match. So is unoaked Pinot Gris, Spanish Albariños, and sparkling wines from just about anywhere.
- Aromatic wines with pronounced fruit flavors work very well with aromatic dishes. Think Rieslings from Germany, Austria, Alsace, and Australia are fantastic matches. Torrontés from Argentina is another big win.
- Low-tannin red wines that are juicy can be delicious. Gamay (Beaujolais) is fantastic, especially with a little chill on it. Spanish Garnacha (Grenache) is more full bodied than Gamay, but also a good match.
- Don’t forget rosés—they’re just begging to be paired with strong, spicy Asian flavors. Great rosés are now being made in almost every major wine country. And, for what might well be the single best knockout pairing of all, try a rosé sparkling wine.