- Wednesday 1 October 2003
The lively acidity, richness and flavours of Alsace wines make them the perfect partner for Asian food, says FIONA BECKETT
Eat Indian… Drink Alsace,' runs one of the slogans for the new advertising campaign suggesting that the natural partner for these elegant wines is spicy food. (It also promotes the partnership with Chinese and Thai cuisine.)
You simply wouldn't have come across such a statement even a couple of years ago when an Alsace wine dinner was more likely to feature foie gras and creamy sauces than a chicken curry. But in the last nine months I've been asked to more Alsace wine dinners in Chinese, Thai and Indian restaurants than I have for any other wine region or cuisine.
The fact is that it works and the star matches are not confined to Gewurztraminer, long associated with spicy food, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling, too. An enjoyable debate about the best matches continues, but there is undoubtedly a new confidence on the part of producers and sommeliers about presenting top-quality wines with challenging cuisines. At a recent dinner at London's Sugar Club, for example, Thurkheim successfully showed off a magnum of its grand cru Brand Riesling with a halibut, lime and turmeric curry.
The truth is that Alsace whites have the richness, flavour and lively acidity to stand up to strong flavours without – and this is crucial – the burden of oak, which can so often hit a jarring note with spicy food. 'There are few more refreshing, serious, full-bodied dry white wines than a fine Alsace Riesling, which is arguably a much more flexible food partner than most white Burgundy,' writes Jancis Robinson MW on her website www.jancisrobinson.com.
So successful has the association between Alsace and Asian been that one producer, Domaine Josmeyer, has produced Fleur de Lotus, a blend of Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Riesling, to pair with oriental dishes (see below). I'm sure we'll see more.
Maybe the least likely grape variety to be associated with spicy food, but its crisp acidity makes it an excellent match for lightly spiced seafood and shellfish dishes such as scallops and crab (particularly in salads) and light Indian vegetarian food. It's also a good wine to partner with smooth vegetable soups, spring vegetables and summer salads, and works well with egg dishes and, more classically, creamily sauced fish.
Star match: Paul Blanck Pinot Blanc Classique 2001 with deep-fried oysters marinated with garlic, mint and coriander (part of a recent wine dinner at Cafe Spice Namaste in London)
Riesling The most flexible of grapes, dry Riesling is the most likely variety to hit the spot with Cantonese, Vietnamese and milder Thai food. It goes particularly well with lime, garlic, coriander and turmeric and with Asian-spiced seafood, salads and stir-fries. It works well with mild creamy chicken and fish curries, too. More traditional – but equally successful – combinations would be with smoked or grilled trout, smoked or poached salmon, asparagus and chicken with cream and mushrooms and pork or pheasant with apple-based sauces. And with a classic choucroute, of course.
Star match: Château d'Orschwihr Riesling Grand Cru Kitterlé 2000 with scallop ceviche with avocado and crème fraîche purée (Pied à Terre, London)
Tokay Pinot Gris Pinot Gris is generally the wine I first turn to in a Thai or Malay restaurant. Its exotic muskiness seems able to carry the palate-battering assault of hot, sour and sweet perfectly. Richer styles deal well with chilli, coconut, fish sauce, soy sauce and peanut-based sauces. It's also a good wine to drink with spicier Chinese dishes such as those from Szechuan or with modern Japanese-inspired dishes.
More traditionally it works with rich white meats, especially with mushrooms, or more delicate dishes such as classically prepared fine fish and shellfish such as turbot, lobster and scallops. Top-quality Pinot Gris would accompany goose and game such as wild duck, partridge and pheasant. It also works particularly well with Gruyère and Gruyère-style cheese such as Comté, Beaufort and Appenzeller.
Star match: Léon Beyer, Cuvée des Comtes, Tokay Pinot Gris 1997 with spice-crusted sea bass in a sweet and sour broth (Jason McAuliffe, Chez Bruce, London)
Gewurztraminer Gewurztraminer also works with spicy dishes but is a less certain bet. When it succeeds (almost always with duck, spectacularly with lobster cooked with ginger, or rich northern Indian meat curries featuring cloves, cardamom, cinnamon or mace), the match can be memorable. But its lushness can overwhelm delicate flavours or be an insufficiently refreshing counterpoint to strong ones. As well as the famous match with Munster cheese, it will also complement other strong cheeses such as Pont L'Evêque and Maroilles. Sweeter versions can handle foie gras. Star Match: Caves de Ribeauvillé Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Osterberg 2000 with Tandoori saddle of lamb with saffron sauce (The Cinnamon Club, London)
In red wine terms Pinot Noir works best with the milder end of the spice spectrum – spice-crusted tuna or salmon, dishes such as Chinese crispy duck or mild chicken curries. More conventionally it's a good partner for grilled chicken, charcuterie and other cold meats such as ham, and with mild goat and sheep cheeses.
Although sweeter Vendange Tardive and SGN (Sélection Grains Nobles) wines are most often associated with foie gras, they again can take on Asian flavours. Gewurztraminer to my mind is the star here, especially with sweet Thai and Indian rice-based puddings. Even dry Gewurz or Gewurz-dominated blends can work with desserts – witness the coconut and lychee rice with exotic fruit and saké sorbet they serve with the Josmeyer Fleur de Lotus at Mju.