Korean cuisine is difficult to pair with wine. When I told my Korean dad about my 15-months of failed attempts and eventual success—corresponding to my intense wine studies and food-pairing experiments—he replied, “Nooo! I don't think so.”
True, Koreans do not have a history of producing or sipping wine. The new interest in wine bars in Seoul reflects the internationalization of the city, and wines are served with traditional European pairings such as cheese.
But this is Vancouver, and the melding of cultures is a reality. Before I hand over the platter of pairings that actually work, a word on why Korean cuisine is a challenge to match with wine.
First off, Asian food and wine pairings generally need to be approached differently because all the dishes in a meal are eaten at the same time. Jeannie Cho Lee is a master of wine who was recently in Vancouver for the launch of her booklet Perfect Pairings: German Wines & Asian Flavours (free at B.C. Liquor Stores this month). After an interview scheduling mix-up, she explains via email from Hong Kong that the typical Asian dining experience is about “the roving chopsticks”.
“We dip in and out of dishes and flavours, and that changes throughout the meal. Compare this to a typically plated French meal, where the flavours are within a range and repeated again and again.” Her tip: don't attempt a “perfect” pairing, but instead aim to match the wine with about 60 percent of the meal.
Korean food is even trickier than other Asian fare, she says, because of the many fermented flavours and generous use of chilies.
Consulting with two others in the wine trade—Joshua Hall, a wine blogger in Seoul (www.winekorea.asia/), and Olivier LeGrand, a French wine marketer who's been doing a little Korean food and wine pairing of his own—revealed a consensus about the style of wine that goes best with a typical Korean meal, which is a wild mix of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami topped off with some serious spice. Korean cuisine favours dry, well-balanced, medium-bodied wines with ripe, subtle tannins and hints of spice. Or, as Lee writes in her booklet, a wine that has “boldness with subtlety, ripeness without sweetness, and full body without heaviness”.
Don't make the rookie mistake of going sweeter as the spice heats up with the dish. The sweetness will take away from the flavours; off-dry is the sweetest you'll want to go. Instead, intensify the fruit in the wine with the spice.
According to Hall, this tasty pancake appetizer chock full of seafood and green onion pairs well with a Pinot Gris that has good acidity and depth. I couldn't agree more. It went deliciously with Tinhorn Creek Pinot Gris 2011 ($17.99 at the winery), a clean and citrus-y white that has added texture from malolactic stainless-steel fermentation.
Bibimbap and bibim naengmyeon
Bibimbap is a rice bowl topped with vegetables, meat, and egg mixed together with a spicy red chili sauce. Its summer cousin is bibim naengmyeon—cold buckwheat noodles mixed with the same sauce. Both pair beautifully with three wines, as I discovered at a recent dinner.
Nollen Notorious Rooster ($13.98), an off-dry Riesling from Germany, balanced out the spice with just a touch of sweetness. And the combination of warmer weather and Korean food goes well with the most versatile of wines: rosé. Clos du Soleil Rosé 2011 ($17.90 at the winery), from B.C.'s Similkameen Valley and made from 15-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines, was by far the group's favourite match, with its dry, fruit-forward notes of raspberry and cranberry and bright acidity.
Push your boundaries—and your wallet—by pairing with a Tavel rosé from the west bank of the Rhône in France. Perrin & Fils Tavel Rosé 2011 ($36.45 at Legacy Liquor Store) is a dry, full-bodied, powerful pink made from Grenache.
Grilled beef, rice, kimchi, and a variety of side dishes
The two above rosés work well with the mix of flavours in this Korean meal, but two reds stood out.
Grenache shone again in the Spanish Legado Munoz Garnacha 2010 ($13.85 at Legacy Liquor Store). Meaty, fruity, and spicy, with refined tannins. It lingers just enough.
The red-wine star was L.A. Cetto Nebbiolo Private Reserve 2005 ($33.85 at Legacy Liquor Store) from Mexico—intense fruit balanced with acidity, soft tannins, and a touch of spice. A beautiful wine on its own as well. As Koreans say, gun-bae!