Wine pairing is an inherently imprecise art, and unlike Picasso or van Gogh, my sketches at the dinner table will probably never become part of a retrospective exhibition extolling my genius. But we can take a tip from these masters – try, try again. Become obsessed with blue or cypresses and you might become famous for it.
What is the key to pairing, then? Body and acidity. There’s more, but those are good places to start as both are responsible for your first impressions of a wine. To review, body is how the wine feels in your mouth and acidity is responsible for the prickly sensation on the sides of your tongue when wine first hits it.
One Monday, my boyfriend and I decided to go head-to-head at the dinner table in pairing a complex Malaysian dish, he with beer, me with wine. Upon receiving The Complete Asian Cookbook as a gift, we decided to make beef rendang and find a wine pairing for this headily scented dish layered with coconut milk, galangal and tamarind. Not exactly what most winemakers have in mind or on hand. The book was originally published 30 years ago by Charmaine Solomon, a Sri Lankan currently living in Sydney. How she wrote this book covering 13 distinct cuisines without the help of the Internet boggles the mind, but my gift-giving friend assured me that his parents had attempted every recipe and they’re all winners. So I got to work.
As the beef simmered, I poured myself a glass of my wine pick, the 2008 Domaine de Bagnol Cassis Blanc. Cassis is located on the Cote d’Azur between Marseilles and Bandol; this blend of Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Marsanne is a transporting expression of terroir as it immediately recalls the saline sea breezes cooling the grapes after a day under the Provencal sun. I felt that its more viscous body would match the creaminess of the coconut milk, and its understated fruit and medium plus acidity would enhance the herbaceous notes and spices in the rendang.
Upon tasting the food and wine together, I realized, somewhat to my chagrin, that I perhaps should have reached for the tried and true Asian food pairing of a full-bodied Riesling. I had marinated the meat overnight in spicy coconut vinegar, soy sauce, salt and white pepper, though, so the dish probably turned out a bit more sour than Charmaine intended. This actually worked to the pairing’s advantage as the wine had a higher acidity than I remembered. The fruit was indeed understated, but this was no time to be shy as it got lost in the pungent flavor of the dish. All in all, the food and wine did not clash, but also did not wish to play together. Thankfully, we had a few bottles of Weissbock in the fridge, which scooped the rendang up in its malty, Germanic embrace.
If I make the dish the same way again, I’ll try it with a juicy gamay with a slight chill on it. But I’m thinking of skipping the vinegar and adding more coconut milk and palm sugar. I’m thinking an Alsatian white blend with that rendang rendition, and of the endless possibilities.
Main Flavors Components: Creaminess (coconut milk), Earthiness (Beef), Strong Sweet Herb (Lemongrass)
Wine Strategy: Body and acidity are key to pairing. A more viscous medium acid wine is our first choice.
1st Pick: Domaine de Bagnol Cassis AOC (White) – more viscous (to match creaminess of coconut milk) and understated fruit to lift out herbaceous notes and spices
2nd Pick: Cousin Leduc Gamay Loire – more earthy, smoky, silky tannins to match beef
Beer Strategy: Harmony is key here, versus offsetting main flavor components of the food. However we don’t want to overpower the dish with a beer that’s too heavy.
1st Pick: Style – Imperial White. Examples would be Jan de Lichte, Belgium, Southhampton double white or Ithaca White Gold. Medium body to stand up to the dish and a spice profile to compliment the lemongrass.
2nd pick: Style – Hellesbock or Maibock. Medium to full body, these lagers would underpin the earthiness of the beef and clean finish would not hide the spices in the dish. A subtle, malty pairing that does not detract from the dish itself.