Wine writer David Williams on the perplexing array of cuisines now at our disposal and how on earth one finds a wine to match
Even if you don't quite buy the line that cooking is the new rock and roll and chefs the new rock stars, it really does seem that food has taken on at least one of the roles played by music for previous generations. Where generation X-ers like me expressed our identity through the records we bought, squabbling with our mates over which band was the most 'relevant' (even if we weren't really sure what we meant by 'relevant'), your average millennial is more likely to project an image of worldly cultural clout by being the first to try and advocate an increasingly exotic range of dishes, ingredients or cuisines.
Is it currently the thing to eat Korean bibimbap or are we now onto steamed Taiwanese bao buns? Are we still supposed to be out foraging for roots, leaves, possibly even rodents, in our local park, or should we be ironically deep-frying chicken? Is it Persian this week, or Israeli? What exactly is a 'rough fusion taco' or, heaven help us, a 'freakshake'? Can anyone order a cronut and keep a straight face? It's hard to keep up.
But for all that it can sometimes lead to a painfully cool brand of oneupmanship – and for all that it might make some of us feel old – I wouldn't swap British food culture as it is now for how it was at any other point in my lifetime. Of course, this is most visible in the trendier corners of big cities such as London and Manchester, where new street food stalls or small-plate restaurants seem to open every day. But even if you never go further for your dinner than the local supermarket, you can find a wealth of cuisines and ingredients – from Japanese nori and Korean kimchi, to pulled pork sandwiches and harissa paste – that, as recently as a decade ago, would have been available only through niche specialist importers.
Indeed, for wine-lovers, the only problem posed by this explosion of new flavours and textures is what to drink with them. For years, the old chef's maxim that 'what grows together goes together' was pretty much all you needed to know to come up with a reliably good wine and food match. OK, it didn't work for Indian or Chinese. But given that so much of the food we ate in the UK, certainly in restaurants, was from European traditions where local wine developed hand-in-hand with local food, a little of that local knowledge – Muscadet with oysters, duck with Madiran, lamb with Rioja, wild mushrooms (or, if you're lucky, truffles) with Barolo – went a long way.
With today's almost bewildering eclecticism, however, that advice will only take you so far. There is no time-tested wine match for dishes from traditionally non-vinous countries; when served with a plate of nasi goreng, you can't very well ask what kind of wine grows in the vineyards of Java. Neither does history provide obvious wine pairings for the molecular malarkey pioneered by Heston Blumenthal and the Spanish new wave or the foraged minimalism that has seeped into the UK from Scandinavian restaurants such as Copenhagen's Noma. Even a less exotic trend such as the posh makeover of American fast food is based on a blueprint designed in a bygone USA that had not yet got the wine-drinking bug.
Of course, one option would be to ditch wine altogether and go for the local brew: sake with your sushi, baiju with your bao, Anchor Steam with your Wagyu burger – all have their merits. But there is, I think, at least as much fun to be had from finding the right wine. Indeed, new classic food and wine matches have already emerged from the deliciously creative chaos of the contemporary global food scene. And while the following suggestions may sometimes grow thousands of miles apart, they get on together better than many neighbours.
There is a small but flourishing wine industry in Japan, and its most successful (if still rather expensive) wines so far, the light, dry whites made from the native koshu grape in the Yamanashi prefecture, have a delicacy and subtlety that actually goes very well with those same qualities in sushi and sashimi. But my own preference would be dry whites drawn from the Alps. Both Swiss chasselas and jacquère from the Alpine French region of Savoie have a softly insinuating freshness – like an Alpine stream if you're feeling poetic – and a gentle blossomy flavour that could have been made for sushi.
The Swiss 2014 Fendant Classique from Domaine des Muses displays all the Alpine freshness David refers to above. For wines with a similar lightness of touch try The Society's Grüner Veltliner or The Society's Vinho Verde 2016. Rosé Champagne and manzanilla sherry would also work well. Try Marguet Shaman Rosé Grand Cru Brut NV or Hidalgo Pastrana Manzanilla Pasada.
Loaded with garlic, chilli and ginger, the fiery fermented Korean cabbage condiment might seem like a bridge too far for wine. In fact, when you think about it, the dish is not a million miles away from a classic of Alsace cuisine, choucroute – or sauerkraut – and a good wine match can in fact be found in the same patch. Alsace pinot gris and gewurztraminer, ideally in an off-dry, full-bodied style containing some sugar to offset the spicy heat, has a similar range of exotic spicy flavours that work so well with kimchi and, indeed, many other forcefully spicy and perfumed East Asian dishes.
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Léon Beyer's 2014 Gewurztraminer fits David's profile perfectly, and don't forget that Chile makes some excellent benchmark wines from this grape, try Matetic Corralillo 2015. South African chenin blanc has proven to be a great success with forcefully spicy food, try the aromatic Percheron Chenin Blanc-Viognier 2016 from Swartland.
One of the signatures of the various cuisines of South East Asia is a combination of subtle flavour and prettiness of aroma with prickly heat, and Vietnamese food exemplifies that perfectly. In a dish like a classic rice paper roll with nuoc cham sauce, for example, you have the freshness and perfumed zing of mint, basil and coriander, the lightness of the rice noodles, the tang of lime and sweet sour chilli, and the savoury base note of fish sauce. Again, a very tough match on paper but one that has an almost uncannily natural partner in the filigree, off-dry style of Mosel riesling known as Kabinett, where the sharp blade of steel-like acidity, the smidgen of heat-absorbing sweetness, and the floral complexity is a like-for-like hit.
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Try the excellent-value Ruppertsberger Hoheberg Riesling Kabinett in the fresh new 2016 vintage or what about from Washington State, Grace Lane Riesling 2014 whose grade-3 sweetness levels and lick of lime sound just about perfect for the job and The Society's Vin d'Alsace is on cracking form in the 2015 vintage.
There's nothing new for British palates in the combination of fish and citrus. But the use of lemon and/or lime to effectively 'cook' the fish or seafood in ceviche is on a different order of intensity from a wedge of lemon with your scampi. Two individualistic white wine styles have the intensity of citrussy flavours to take on this currently fashionable Peruvian genre: dry Australian riesling, from the Clare or Eden Valleys, has a blistering lime tang; Greek assyrtiko is more like Chablis with extra lemon and saline minerals.
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Our go-to assyrtiko, Hatzidakis Santorini 2015, has that requisite seam of ripe acidity which would enable it to strut its stuff against a ceviche, and the clean crisp lime-driven intensity of our Madfish Great Southern Riesling 2016 would meet Mr Williams' criteria too. Alternatively, new English wine, Stopham Estate Pinot Blanc 2015 has a lime and appley acidity on the finish that would make an elegant match.
Inhabitants of countries as diverse as Iran, Greece, Lebanon and Israel would rightly point out that theirs are culinary traditions with their own unique characters. But there is a kinship in spicing and ingredients in each of these recently fashionable cuisines that gives them an affinity with a certain style of red wine pioneered further west in France and Spain. From the Rhône to Priorat in southern Catalonia – and from producers inspired by them in Swartland in South Africa, Australia's Barossa Valley, or indeed, modern-day Lebanon's Bekaa Valley – the blend based on grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, carignan among others can offer a mix of sweet spice and generous brambly fruit that is just right for meze featuring fragrant lamb and fresh, subtly spiced and herbed vegetable dishes.
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Lebanese cuisine has its wine partner in the form of this popular red from the country's oldest winery, Château Ksara Réserve du Couvent 2014. On the other side of the Med, the spicy red-fruit flavour of Black Kalavryta, Tetramythos 2016 from the Peleponnese, makes it a great wine for a whole panoply of Greek meze, possibly even served chilled. Lovers of tagines have their match in Alain Graillot's Syrah du Maroc 'Tandem' 2013.
Posh fast food
The reclamation – or yuppification – of classic American fast food has been a feature of the 2010s. The idea is to seize on the basics of junk food such as hot dogs, fried chicken or burgers and transform them with high-quality ingredients, and careful cooking. Perhaps the most celebrated wine match for this trend is Champagne with hot dogs, as presented by the Fitzrovia restaurant Bubbledogs. Personally, I reckon the combination of penetrating fat-cutting acidity, fruit and savoury yeastiness you find in good blanc-de-blancs Champagne (or good-value crémant) is better suited to the snap, crunch and umami hit of fried chicken than sausages. For the posh burgers and dogs, best to go back to the source and another modern American classic: the sweetly vivid, Beaujolais-on-steroids juiciness of new-wave californian zinfandel.
Our wine recommendations
If you want to go the Bubbledogs route when serving souped-up hot dogs, The Society's Reserva Cava NV
, is terrific value and has lots of flavour too. The Society's California Old-Vine Zinfandel
is a natural fit for fancy burgers or how about trying a sparkling Aussie shiraz, such as Bleasdale's Langhorne Creek Sparkling Shiraz.
David Williams is wine correspondent for The Observer, deputy editor of The World of Fine Wine and a member of the Wine Gang.