I am neither a wine connoisseur, nor well versed when describing wines—such as it has “flavours of red berries and chocolate, and the nose with a hint of leather”. I rarely remember the names of the winemakers, appellations, and vintages. However, as a restaurateur, I have attended several wine-tasting events and have to recommend wines to my customers. Thais customarily drink fresh, cold water, soft drinks, fruit juices, or iced tea with our food. So do any wines really go with Thai food?
The complexity of Thai flavours makes pairing wines challenging. Each and every dish in Thai cuisines varies with respect to region, style of cooking, and copious usage of fragrant herbs and spices. Most Thai salads and soups tend to blend the classic four flavours of sweet, sour, salty, and slightly bitter, with soupçon of spiciness. Curries and other full-flavoured dishes overwhelm the delicateness of wine. Diverse flavoursome ingredients with lots of umami—such as fish sauce, shrimp paste, and coconut milk—do not play well on the palate when paired with wines. Therefore, most diners tend to drink ice-cold beer with these dishes. Conversely, neither pale ale nor cloudy wheat beer can appease the heat. They only contrast the fiery, sweltering effects.
Traditionally, Thais dine and share an ensemble of dishes simultaneously in banquet style, unlike the succession of courses in European cuisines. So the robust array of food makes it difficult to find one or two perfect matches for the whole meal. A sommelier told me that the rules of enjoying wine are not set in stone and one should drink what one likes. Even so, some say that pairing the food with wine from the same culture is the best and simplest rule. Thai wines thus offer new alternatives. Although the local wine industry has yet to fully mature, some may be better than most perceive. Therefore, matching Thai food and Thai wines should be experimented further.
Since a Thai meal mixes white and red meats from appetizers to soups and main courses, the rules of colour matching do not successfully work here. So think about what are in the main dishes—whether seafood or meat—and what you like to drink. Then choose your wine. Most appetizers and salads would match well with aromatic, floral, fruity, white grape varieties such as the Alsatian and German wines—Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Viognier or other Burgundy whites. With naturally high acidity, they cleanse and cool the palate while coping with strong spices and chillies. These wines, and sweet Tokay, are also great with intensely sugary Thai desserts. Bright, crisp, and fragrant Sauvignon Blanc complements and enhances the complex flavours of sourness but may not withstand the heat.
Champagne and sparkling wines also work well, as they help cleanse the palate and cut the oils and heat with bubbles. Fizzy Prosecco and champagne cocktails are light and balance comfortably with seafood and salad dishes. Rosé wines, with their vibrant and refreshing flavours and sweet aromas, can weave through and harmonize the chaos of concoctions, from amuse-bouches to desserts. Though, this makes me think of the days when Mateus Rosé was popular and drunk with all kinds of food—including Chinese!
Here are more groups of white grapes that excellently suit Asian flavours. The Austrian Grüner Veltliner presents a versatile and trendy match with its dry, tangy flavours, and less acidity. Chilled Chardonnay synchronizes well with low alcohol content and high acids to help cleanse the oiliness. These acidic wines swim well with salty food. Un-oaked and fruity wines survive well with most spicy dishes, while Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris both support the sourness in the food because flat and low-acidity wine will be overwhelmed by sour salads and soups.
I often hear conflicting responses when it comes to having red wine with Thai food. Red wines certainly have their limitations because spices dominate them and the tannins disagree with the accented flavours and ingredients. However, some meat and curry dishes can create compromising liaisons with the reds. Pinot noir, light Shiraz, Côtes du Rhône, Grenache and some Burgundy varieties with their sweet, berry flavours, soft tannins, and silky smoothness fare well with alluring spices, chilli heat, and even with fish and seafood dishes.
However, please don’t waste the finest bottles of big Bordeaux blends and powerful Australian Shiraz with either overshadowing spices or delicate seafood. Some diners want to be seen as sophisticated and would bring a bottle of Château Pétrus to have with steamed fish or a “super Tuscan” to have with pizza. Both wine and food are ruined from their ostentatiousness. Wining like this is not très chic, but rather tragic. The ancient saying, “in vino veritas” (meaning “in wine, truth”), exposes our true personality through the influence of alcohol. Like our real thoughts and desires, authentic Thai flavours can be revealed by well-chosen wines.