A version of this article was first published by FD magazine, March 2006.
Not even the tragedy of the tsunami in December 2004 can calm the current trend for Thai cuisine. Indeed it may even inspire and strengthen further exploration of all things Thai. As more restaurants offer Thai dishes and supermarkets plug into the Thai ready-meal sector, it’s time to explore the best wine accompaniments to this unique and vinously challenging yet palate-awakening style of cuisine.
Without an historical wine culture where food and wine have evolved intertwined, Thai food offers several challenges for the discerning gastronome. It’s all about the food, about complementing and contrasting flavours, spices and aromas. Curries, the Thai Sunday roast equivalent, are made with fragrant seasonings – fresh lemon grass, chillies, kaffir leaves, coriander, galangal, and Thai basil, often with sweet, rich, coconut milk. Salty shrimp paste is a regular feature, providing a sense of earthiness and pungency.
With all these contrasting, complementary, confident flavours, where many dishes may be served concurrently instead of a single main course with side dishes, it is almost the ambience of the cuisine to which wine needs to appeal – appealing to the theme and mood of the meal rather than with one or two dishes.
Head chef Matthew Albert, at one-Michelin-star restaurant Nahm, in London’s Belgravia, explained some of the intricacies and complexities of Thai food. “Thailand is split into the north, the mid plains, and south, and all are very different. Coconut-based curries, both red and green are more from the southern or mid plains. The north is more rustic, more raw, more pungent.
“Curry does challenge a wine. The main flavours in Thai food are heat, sour, bitter, salty and sweet. Each dish is a different combination, and you can get all the flavours in a more complex curry. Mostly though, they are hot and sour, or sweet and salty, or hot, sweet and salty.”
“Curry does challenge a wine”
Wines need to have an intensity and pungency to match that of the cuisine, but this does not mean a heavy weight and full body. Paul Guiney, Nahm’s assistant restaurant manager and assistant sommelier explained: “There are such a varied number of textures and flavours to a Thai meal. Sweetness works with those flavours and stands up to the spicy notes of food. The classic wine matches aren’t there, but the German and Alsatien staples of riesling and gewurztraminer marry well with both Asian and Thai food.”
Albert said one of the dishes he enjoys cooking is “geng krua, a red smoky fish curry, with grilled game bird or beef: it is rich, smoky, quite oily.” Guiney outlined the wine-pairing process: “it has smokiness from the grill and game, and is quite rich. I’d be looking at something a bit richer, for example a Scharzhofberger kabinett from Egon Müller, which has a fine spritziness, [and the dish] doesn’t compromise the fine acid structure or minerality of the riesling. A Grand Cru Kitterlé gewürztraminer from Domaines Schlumberger is rich and classic, with floral notes, honeysuckle and a touch of apricot. And it doesn’t have an overwhelming perfume”.
geng krua, a red smoky fish curry, with grilled game bird or beef: it is rich, smoky, and quite oily.
Check out this restaurant in London for a great example
Red wines do have a hard time with Thai cuisine. Reds can be challenging with fish anyway, which is a common feature of Thai cooking, but add the spiciness and intensity of Thai flavours and the task is greater. The main thing is to avoid tannin, so pinot noir is the obvious choice, even chilled slightly to accentuate the freshness of the wine’s fruit. If not Burgundy, then New Zealand’s Central Otagan pinot noir with a couple of years’ maturity could be a good bet as the tannins soften with some ageing, and focused fruit is invariably top of the agenda for most producers. Guiney said the “lower level of tannin and high fruit level suit the food styles better, [otherwise] there may be too many things fighting for attention on the palate.”
For similar reasons German pinot noir would do well, as Iris Ellman, proprietor of specialist German importer The Wine Barn explained, “when it’s gently spicy, with lemon grass.” She added that “it is quite tricky to combine food with lots of chilli with red wine, as it can enhance spice rather than complement it”, so sommeliers need to try individual wines to gauge their suitability.
Back to white wines, Ellman suggested scheurebe can stand up to spicy food, “having the fruitiness of riesling and the spiciness of silvaner.” On this basis, England’s very own bacchus is worth a punt, as are the richer, more intense styles of Austrian riesling and grüner veltliner, maybe a smaragd from the Wachau, or a later harvested for richness, florally dry, wine from other parts of Lower Austria.