Some Like It Hot: Thai Food and Wine

Thai cuisine is undoubtedly one of the most savory, aromatic, and popular cuisines in the world. It is a diet that’s defined by complexity and equilibrium. Most of the time, you’ll find all five basic tastes—sourness, saltiness, sweetness, umami, and bitterness—incorporated in a single dish. Seasoned chefs juggle these flavor elements expertly, creating wonderful fares that are chock-full of fragrant and piquant spices.

From Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soup) to Pad Thai (fried noodles), Gaeng Keow Wan Kai (green chicken curry) to Som Tum (spicy green papaya salad), each delicacy offers layers of tastes, brought together by a bold but well-balanced finish.

What to Look for In Your Wine

Like Indian food, Thai cuisine uses a fine array of fragrant herbs and dried spices. Think garlic, cilantro, chili, shrimp paste, lemon grass, shallots, pepper, and fish sauce. Tamarind paste and palm sugar can also be added to the dish for a touch of sweetness.

Now, because Thai food leans toward the piquant, you’ll need a wine that can take the heat. To avoid picking the wrong vino for your Thai dinner, consider the following tips.

Tip#1: Go for wines that are low in alcohol. You know how some people enjoy setting their cocktails on fire before taking a sip? What gets the fire going is the high-proof alcohol at the top layer of the drink. Pairing a chili-packed Thai curry with a high-alcohol wine has pretty much the same effect. Except it’s your mouth that will feel like it’s on fire, not the glass. Unless you’re fond of snacking on ghost peppers, we recommend going for wine with an ABV that’s less than 12 percent (%).

Tip#2: Hold the tannins. Tannins are experts at stoking and intensifying a dish’s heat. Avoid torching your taste buds by saving your Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux red, and Syrah for another day. Go for a crisp and bright Riesling or Pinot rosé instead.

Tip#3: Counteract heat with the sweet. Whether we’re talking large doses of tropical fruit flavors or a spoonful of residual sugar, your wine needs a touch of saccharine goodness to offset the spicy and savory nature of Thai cuisine.

Tip#4: Choose a bright and zippy wine. Drinks that are teeming with food-friendly and zesty acidity can do wonders in enriching the tartness of a dish. Think Kaeng Som (Thai sour curry), Yum Pol-mai Goong (prawns and fruits salad), Yum Nuea (spicy beef salad), and basically any delicacy rich in tamarind and lime juice flavors.

Recommended Styles and Varietals

It’s time to get specific. While there are a large number of wines that will go swimmingly with Thai cuisine, the following comprises our list of tried-and-tested tipples.  

Sparkling Wine and Champagne. Champagne and curry? Absolutely. Whether we’re talking creamy Paneng Kai (mild chicken curry) or a piping-hot Kaeng Phet (red curry), these effervescent wonders are excellent at cutting through the heat of the dish. A nice bubbly Shiraz also goes spectacularly well with a platter of Yum Pla Duk Fu (deep-fried catfish and green mango salad).

Riesling. Riesling is arguably the most food-friendly white wine in the industry. Its lemon zest acidity and ripe peach notes deliver terrific textural and flavor contrasts to dishes like Kaeng Phet Pet Yang (roast duck red curry), Pad Thai, and Kaeng Khiao Wan (green curry). Here’s a little tip—although most Rieslings will work with Thai food, we say go German or Austrian.  These Rieslings are light and tart enough to enrich the sweetness of the fare without overpowering it.

Gewürztraminer. A Gewürztraminer with a strong core of lemon or lime acidity can tame the spiciest of curries. Like the Riesling, this varietal also works well with a myriad of Thai delicacies.

Pinot Gris. An off-dry and aromatic New Zealand Pinot Gris, has just the right amount of muskiness and sweetness to complement a sharp Thai dish.

Moscato d’Asti. Fruit-forward, ripe, and cloying, the Moscato d’Asti has more than enough sweetness to soothe the palate after a round of piquant Thai fares. This is a drink that goes beautifully with a flavorsome seafood curry.

Semillon. Another excellent curry pairing, the honey-sweet Semillon brings much-needed levity to scorching Thai dishes.

Grüner Veltliner. The sumptuous and ripe Grüner Veltliner is a stellar match to classic Thai salads like Yum Som O (pomelo salad).

Sauvignon Blanc. When matching Sauvignon Blanc with Thai food, we recommend going for delicate and fruit-forward Sauvignons over their mineral-driven counterparts. Think Sauvignons from Sancerre, Loire and New Zealand.

Pinot Noir. A soft, low-alcohol, and berry-driven Pinot Noir is stunning when paired with mild and creamy green curries, seared crab, and deep-fried fish.