Asian food and wine

The flavours found in Asian cuisine vary from the pure, unadorned simplicity of natural produce – as we see in Japanese food – to the most complex blends of meat, vegetable, fungus, spices, herbs and piquant sauces. The spectrum of textures is similarly wide, ranging from watery to soft and creamy to rubbery to hard and crunchy.

This broad palate of food flavours and textures, despite having been developed largely in the absence of wine, sit remarkably well with the fresh, fruity styles of wine we make in Australia, making the dining experience more pleasant.

Starting at the delicate end of the spectrum, Japanese cuisine tends to focus on food in or near its natural state with little or no seasoning other than soy or wasabi to be added at the discretion of the diner. Even the tempura batters are light and delicate in comparison to the fried foods in other cuisines.

These delicate, pure flavours tend to be swamped by overly rich wines. So it’s a no-brainer really to pair Japanese food with fine, subtle wines: dry Australian riesling works well because it’s big on floral aromas and flavours, finely textured and refreshingly crisp.

Hunter semillon offers similar delicacy though with flavours more akin to lemon and lemongrass. And amongst the reds, cool climate pinot noir (Tassie, Mornington Peninsula, New Zealand, for example) deliver delicious fruit flavours that generally won’t stomp all over delicate food.

Unlike chilli, the hot spot in Japanese food – wasabi – presents little barrier to delicate wine flavours. Wasabi’s intense heat burst goes straight up the spout, leaving the palate refreshed and receptive for whatever follows.

Chilli heat, on the other hand, lingers, knocking out delicate wine flavours. No matter what the cuisine, if heat’s a big focus, wine and beer tend to provide background flavours only. Options include cheaper, well-chilled neutral wines or commercial lagers.  Or highly hopped beers — especially the Pilsen styles from Bohemia, Germany and Australia’s smaller brewers – offer a more assertive flavour struggle between chilli heat and hops bitterness.

I also find that no or low-oak grenache from Clare Valley, Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale – perhaps because of the high level of perfume and fruitiness – stand some chance against chilli and other highly spiced foods.

Because much of the Asian food we enjoy comes assertively spiced or with pungent or salty sauces and we tend share dishes, moving from one flavour grouping to another, it’s worth popping several different wines on the table to broaden the flavour palette.

If riesling seems to be the most versatile variety, it’s certainly not on its own. For a pungent, intensely fruity bone-dry thrill, try a Marlborough or Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc. Or for something a little more restrained but still with lots of flavour and lean, drying refreshment, semillon sauvignon blanc blends are terrific – especially those from Margaret River, Western Australia.

Pinot Gris (aka pinot grigio) varies enormously in style and quality but, in general, sits well with a range of Asian food styles. Viognier, with its exotic apricot-like flavours and viscous textures, deserves to be a star in its own right, to works best with rich not too piquant food. And gewurtztraminer – a rare beast these days – has some of the versatility of riesling despite its love-it or hate-it musky flavour.

In these order-and-share situations, traditional gutsy Aussie reds probably don’t hold their own as well as light to medium bodied styles that emphasise either bright fruity flavours or savoury and earthy characters.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007