An imperfect match: the perils and pitfalls of pairing Thai with wine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 March, 2012, 12:00am


The world fell in love with Thai food several decades ago and the passion seems in no danger of diminishing.

Even farangs - or Westerners - have been getting in on the act with Michelin stars for Australian David Thompson's Nahm in London and Henrik Yde-Andersen at Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen.

No single wine will work with every Thai meal due to the many contrasting flavours, textures and fragrances. Although often treated as a single cuisine, Thai food is better described as four regional variations, corresponding to distinct geographic areas.

The mountainous north has a relatively cool climate; the northeast sits atop a vast plateau flanked by the Mekong River; the central region is a large area of rich soils dominated by the Chao Phraya river; while the south stretches down the Malay Peninsula between the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea.

Each region's cuisine shares similar roots to its neighbours: Laos and China's Yunnan province to the north, Myanmar to the northwest, Cambodia and Vietnam to the east and Malaysia to the south.

The food is known for its balance of three or four different aspects of taste, not only within each dish, but also within whole meals. The order of preference is usually: sour, sweet, spicy and then salty. Thai dishes frequently have powerful flavours from the many fresh herbs, spices and other ingredients the country is famous for, including lemon grass, chilli, garlic, ginger, kaffir lime, basil, mint, coriander and the pungent nam pla - or fish sauce.

Even so, you could do worse than follow the basic principles of wine matching laid out by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.

Acidity and sweetness are key balancing partners in the equation. Sour or acidic food will make wine taste fruitier and sweeter, while masking its acidity. Conversely, sweet food can make for a bitter mouthful of wine, unless the drink is sweeter than the food itself. Umami, or savoury notes, in the food cannot only turn wine bitter, but make it feel dry in the mouth. Salt, however, enhances the fruitiness and richness of a wine.

Red wine and chilli is not a good combination as the heat leaves it bitter and dry while reducing its sweetness. Also bear in mind the intensity of the food - you need a powerfully flavoured wine to stand up to powerfully flavoured food - and also need to consider the cooking method. Finally, don't forget the sauce and condiments when imagining the flavours you will be matching.

Wines to try

Champagne and sparkling wines: Bubbles refresh the palate as acidity softens the spices.

Whites: Jacques Lurton Touraine (France); Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand); Soalheiro Vinho Verde (Portugal); Ken Forrester Chenin Blanc (South Africa). Gewurztraminer (Hugel & Fils ) or riesling (Dr Loosen) work in theory, but not over a whole meal.

Reds: Strong tannins and wood-aged wines do not generally pair well with spicy food. Try pinot noir (Nicolas Potel or Benjamin Leroux from Burgundy) or New World (Schubert Block B or Felton Road, New Zealand). Other varieties that might work include grenache and gamay from Beaujolais.

Wine educator and judge David Wong is the executive assistant manager at the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macau. With extensive experience as a professional chef in Thailand and around the world, he is also the author of The Art of Modern Portuguese Cuisine.