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When pairing wine with Asian food, go straight to the sauce

Watching a pair of dancers twirl and leap their way through a performance is enthralling.

To be at their peak, dancers must have great chemistry, be in sync, and bring just the right amount of strength to the partnership. The same applies to pairing wine with food. If a wine is too light, a rich dish will throw it off its feet; too heavy and it will weigh down the whole meal, like a ballerina failing to achieve lift.

Asian cuisines, with their complex and varied flavour combinations, dazzle our palates with fancy footwork. Unlike European wine matching traditions, where pairing is based on the key protein of the meal, such as meat or fish, sauce flavours take the lead in Asia. The “white wine with fish, red wine with meat” rules do not always apply, making pairing a challenge, but not impossible – a shoe-slapping Beaujolais can certainly hold its own against a quick-stepping chilli crab.

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The best wine pairings add another dimension to the meal and leave no component waiting in the wings. This judging criteria, applied at Hong Kong’s very own Asian food and wine pairing awards (part of the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Wine and Spirit Competition), creates intelligent pairs beyond well-known labels.

At the 2016 awards announced recently, tod man pla (Thai curried fishcakes with sweet chilli sauce) found its perfect match in Thailand’s Monsoon Valley Blended Rosé 2014. Wine writer and judge at the HKIWSC, Tersina Shieh, says the combination of the wine, fishcake and sauce created a new sensation. “The wine’s stone fruit and red fruit aromas exploded when tasted with the fishcake.” This pairing also proves that, in many cases, local wine pairs best with local cuisine – even in Asia.

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In the case of wagyu beef teppanyaki, it was the wine – Eden Hall Shiraz 2015 (South Australia) – not the sauce – that brought spice to the meal. Describing the pairing, judge Chris So from winelist.hk says, “This cool climate shiraz adds spice to the dish, while the fruit and tannin match the richness of the teppanyaki sauce.”

Sweetness and char – the principal flavours in honey-glazed char siu – were balanced by the freshness and complexity of Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 from New Zealand. “The char on the barbecue pork adds another dimension to the dish. Yealands Estate is a nicely knitted wine that elevated the meal,” Timothy Goh, director of wines at Les Amis Group in Singapore, explains, after his panel judged this combination.

New World wines, with their simple fruit and uncomplicated appeal, shimmy nicely alongside Asian cuisine, but there are some dishes that find their groove with old-world classics. Grilled unagi (freshwater eel) paired best with Porão Velho 2014, a touriga nacional blend. Again, it was the sauce that drove the match. Shieh says, “The sweet sauce is intense and would overpower most white wines. Porão Velho is a smooth red and its vibrant acidity livened up the unagi.”

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The subtle flavours of Japanese sashimi require a more elegant partner. Tamanohikari Junmai Ginjo Shukon 2015 helps sweep the palate between bites. “It is difficult to find a harmonious pairing for a sashimi dish with three different types of fish,” Chris So points out, adding, “This ginjo sake provides a clean, dry finish so you can enjoy one piece of sashimi after another.”

Palate cleansing powers often make sparkling wine a favourite pairing partner. The style came close to winning best pairing with both Indian dishes this year. Judge Subhash Arora, founder and president of Indian Wine Academy and Delhi Wine Club, says the light fizz in FIOL Prosecco DOC helps bring out the flavours of mushroom and pea masala.

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“The slight sweetness of the extra-dry prosecco handles the mild chilli heat of the dish well.” When it came to murg makhani (butter chicken), however, sparkling wine was out-danced by South African shiraz blend, Black Countess 2013. “Murg makhani needs a textured wine. The shiraz in this blend adds spiciness to the dish and grenache and mourvedre provide weight and spice without harsh tannins. Pinotage completes the balancing act,” Arora says.

Every good performance deserves an encore. Audition these duos for a spot at your next Asian banquet.

To see the full list of winners, go to hkiwsc.com/trophy-2016.

Debra Meiburg is a Hong Kong-based Master of Wine