When It Comes To Pairing Wines With Asian Cuisines, One Grape Does Not Fit All

Newsflash: Gewürztraminer is not the best–or only–wine pairing for “Asian” cuisine.

Illustration by Salini Perera.

Recently, I came across a video of my first birthday party—also known in my big, fat British-Indian family as the day I had my first few sips of spark­ling wine under the “supervision” of my dad. Sporting a curly bob and a maroon velvet dress with frilly white lace, I experienced wide-eyed bewilderment as my chubby cheeks swelled and my lips smacked together; next came the nosedive into his glass, demanding more. Shortly after, it was lights out for me for the rest of the party. Aside from that first taste, wine wasn’t really a prominent part of our home table when I was growing up in England. That changed when my family moved to the Okanagan Valley, B.C., in 2008 and when, the following year, we opened Poppadoms, a seasonally minded Indian restaurant in Kelowna.

Our first-time restaurant venture was meant to demonstrate what diasporic Indian cuisine could be outside of Western expectations about takeout butter chicken. Much of that revolved around supporting local Canadian farmers and growing into our new community. There were hiccups along the way, especially with the acceptable value of our labour-intensive cooking style. No matter how ethically sourced our ingredients were or how much time and care we took in preparing them, we were still just the Indian restaurant owners with English accents.

In Poppadoms’ early years, sales representatives were reluctant to show us—let alone let us sample—bottles of wine that cost more than $20. The idea that we’d actually stock them seemed far-fetched to many vendors despite our thoughtfully curated all-B.C. wine list. After all, Indian cuisine is supposedly cheap, right? Event planners would match us with Indian-owned wineries because their wines “suited our food better,” even though they hadn’t tasted the menus we’d planned.

With volcanic and glacial soils contributing to eclectic micro-climates and a short but mighty growing season, B.C.’s largest grape-growing region is known for luring winemakers and viticulturists from near and far. Because of that, I can see why the industry likes to brag about its “international” makeup. But as someone who has worked as a restaurant licensee, winery-marketing coordinator, chef and now writer, I know this isn’t the case. While there are plenty of racialized folks working in the wine industry, they’re under-represented in every corner of it. Outdated stereotypes and outright racism continue to leave a stain on the industry’s reputation—even when it comes to the assumptions professionals make about pairing wines with non-European cuisines.

The continent of Asia consists of almost 50 countries, spans a surface area of about 45 million square kilometres and has an estimated population of 4.7 billion. Despite this and the fact that there are more than 10,000 varieties of wine grapes out there, representatives, sommeliers, winemakers and tasting-room staff seem to rely on a single one when pairing with East, Southeast and South Asian cuisines: gewürztraminer. For them, this pink-skinned aromatic grape not only pairs with “Indian food” but is often the all-encompassing fix for the cuisine of an entire continent too. After a while, my sister, Jasmin, by then a Wine & Spirit Education Trust-certified sommelier, dropped gewürztraminer entirely from Poppadoms’ wine list to force industry insiders and diners alike to expand their pairing imagination. To this day, I carry a lot of frustration about this grape.

In a region where wine geeks attempt to defy traditional pairing logic daily, generalizing statements such as “pairs well with Asian-style dishes” or “pairs with exotic flavours such as Indian or Thai cuisine”—real descriptions I’ve read on bottles—are often about as deep as it gets when it comes to tasting notes. But that one-grape-fits-all mentality is simply another way of implying that all Asians cook the same.

At the restaurant, we paired a beautiful Keralan meen pollichathu—a complex, twice-marinated Arctic char layered with notes of coriander, black pepper and sour tamarind, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled—with a sauvignon blanc from Le Vieux Pin. A tangy Old Delhi-style butter chicken found a sweet spot alongside an elegant, fruit-forward Cabernet Franc from the now closed TH Wines. We thought the rich, bold Hypothesis red blend from Culmina Family Estate Winery would be disastrous with a fiery lamb shank rogan josh, but everyone was floored when that particular vintage didn’t kick up the spice level aggressively and wasn’t overpowered by the flavours.

Speaking to fellow restaurant professionals with Asian ancestry, I’ve found that it’s far too relatable a story. “For so long, the wine industry has been represented by Caucasian folks,” says chef Eva Chin of The Soy Luck Club pop-up series in Toronto. In Western dining culture, she says, there is emphasis on pairing “European” foods with European wines. “It’s very normal to have a lineup of amazing old-world wines paired with a six-course Chinese banquet dinner. That is lacking in North America.”

Karen Gillis, who manages the B.C. vineyard operations at Andrew Peller Ltd., agrees. Early in her career, Gillis met a friend who loved spaghetti sauce paired with Chardonnays with a touch of oak. It sparked a journey of exploration that defied conventional norms. “A couple of times a year, I will eat sweet-and-sour pork,” she shares. “Have you ever had it with a malbec? Worth it!”

While it is true that off-dry beverages can—and to a certain extent do—balance heat, “not every Asian dish is hella spicy!” says Cheata Nao, an Edmonton-born and -based wine educator with Cambodian roots. These days, Nao’s pairing process revolves around trial and error. “If I’m cooking something rich and fatty, I like wines that refresh my palate and cut through the richness,” says Nao. “At the same time, if something is full of fresh herbs—like cilantro, sawtooth and mint—I love it with a refreshing white wine.”

Don’t get me wrong: There is a place for gewürztraminer, especially one with skin contact (like orange wine, which extracts colour, flavour and texture), although even those were rarely offered to us. For me, you can’t dissociate culture from food—and if people aren’t willing to respectfully engage with South Asian culture in the first place, then why bother suggesting pairings at all? This tormented tale of gewürztraminer is just one example of why we need better representation in the wine industry—not just in Canada, but globally.

Now through The Paisley Notebook, my series of pop-up dinners and food events, we try to change perceptions about pairings one table-at-the-farm dinner at a time. Whether it’s an ocean-friendly B.C. ling cod fillet with Bengali kasundi-mustard sauce served with a roussanne-viognier blend or a last-minute pairing that’s decoded moments before serving a dish, this time it’s on my terms.

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