GRAPEVINE

KATHRYN McWHIRTER ON WINES THAT GO WELL WITH THAI FOOD
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The Independent Culture
PILE your fragrant rice, Thai style, into the middle of the plate. Surround it with little porcelain spoonfuls of curries and other dishes from the collection of small, deep porcelain bowls on the table. Then set aside your beer and consult the wine list.

Gulp. What could possibly go with all the different flavours, the sweet and the sour, the salty, slightly rotty-flavoured fish sauce, and all those herbs and spices?

White wines can, some white wines at least, and rather better than do beers and lagers. Thai food, more complex and sophisticated than other south-east Asian cuisines, is far more subtle and therefore easier to match with wine than Chinese food. Apart from the odd syrupy dip and syrup- soaked crispy noodle, the sweetness in Thai food is usually quite subtle. The sourness (from lemon or lime juice) is less tart than that of the sharpest white wines, and plenty of wines with fairly high acidity hit the spot.

Fish sauce, dried prawns or fermented fish paste are a bit of a challenge for most wines, but ripe Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc stand up brilliantly to the test (and in any case these fishy condiments tend to be used quite subtly too - mercifully for many Western palates unused to mildly rotting fish). Hot chilli may burn your tongue, but it won't affect the taste of wine. And the generously used herbs, especially basil, coriander leaves, ginger and lemon grass, are all very wine-friendly indeed.

That Thai favourite, lemon grass, with its lively lemony flavour, is magic with white wines, able to inject character into even quite bland, dull whites. A Sauvignon Blanc (the grape of Sancerre) is the grape with which it has the greatest affinity.

Sancerre is the great chameleon wine than can often span a whole plateful of Thai dishes - partly because it is so good with lemon grass, but also because it's nice with ginger, peanut and coconut sauces, and with fish, tamarind and oyster sauces, all of which are frequent strong or subtle elements in Thai dishes. It passed my tests on stir-fried squid, the famous, wonderfully fragrant roast duck curry, green curry, satay, pud prik moo (chilli hot pork and noodles - moo is Thai for pig), fishcakes, king prawns dipped in fish sauce or tamarind sauce, and more. Bone dry though it is, it somehow even chimes in with many slightly sweet dishes.

The Sauvignons Blancs of the upper Loire are the thing to go for: Sancerre or its neighbours Pouilly Fume, Quincy, Menetou-Salon or Reuilly. These are much better than Sauvignons from the New World or the south of France, while other northern French Sauvignons, from Touraine, Haut Poitou or St Bris, taste too acid alongside the food.

Other wines that stand a fair chance of spanning the whole Thai plateful would be Aligote, which comes from Burgundy or (more cheaply) from Bulgaria, a Colombard from South Africa or Australia, or an equally inexpensive Vin de Pays des Cotes de Gascogne, which is made in south-west France from the Colombard grape. Pinot Blanc is another such wine, perhaps from Alsace, or Italian Pinot Bianco, or the German or Austrian equivalent, Weissburgunder.

Ideally, you need something slightly sweeter with the famous noodle (pud or pudd) dishes. Most drier wines (except for Sancerre and the like) taste dull up against the sweetness. Pud Thai is the ubiquitous noodle dish, an interesting, soft-and-crisp mix of shrimps or prawns - sometimes chicken or pork - bean curd, bean sprouts, ground peanut, egg and chopped, salted turnips. Best with this is a German Riesling or Weissbur-gunder Halbtrocken (half-dry), but "dry" Champagne also has just the right sweetness. The label may say brut, but almost all Champagne gets slightly sweetened (maybe barely perceptibly under all that acidity) before they put in the final cork. Champagne is the best choice for the other main Thai noodle dish, mee grob (mee is another word for noodle, and grob means crispy), a lovely textural contrast of crunchy beansprouts and crispy sweet-sour, syrup- soaked noodles. German Rieslings taste a bit too acid for this, but the cheaper Australian Rieslings (pounds 4.99 and under) usually have a touch of sweetness, and go well.

Thai satay, another sweetish dish which you might eat in isolation with its very own wine, is a perfect demonstration of the greater subtlety of Thai cooking compared with that of surrounding countries. The skewers of meat in an Indonesian restaurant certainly don't have the lovely, delicate lemon grass scent of the Thai version. In a Thai restaurant, you'll probably be served a sweet, liquid sauce with chopped onion and cucumber as well as the expected sweet peanut sauce. German Riesling or Weissburgunder Halbtrocken go best, but one-wine-diners can happily stick to Sancerre.

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