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Soy sauce and other challenging wine pairings
By John H. Isacs

WHEN I was told that this week’s iDeal would put a strong focus on different types of soy sauce, I knew that this week’s column would be a little challenging to write. Pairing wine with soy-sauce based dishes is, indeed, not the easiest topic. Unlike many European sauces, soy sauce has a rather short and problematic relationship with wine. But, while pairing wine with soy sauce dishes calls for sound knowledge, there are some vegetables that make wine pairings even trickier. But before I delve into the specifics, let’s first take a look at soy sauce.

Soy sauce

Fermented sauces called jiang (酱) have existed in China for thousands of years. A sauce that resembles modern soy sauce first appeared in China between the 3rd and 5th centuries. Since then it has been an important ingredient in many of China’s most important dishes. Soy sauce is also a key ingredient in Japanese and other Asian cuisines. For those of us who can’t live without Chinese and Asian cooking, pairing soy sauce dishes with wines is an imperative. While different styles of soy sauce exist, all commonly feature rather bold salty and savory umami flavors. These qualities can accentuate sourness and tannins in wines as well as make a wine taste flabby. When served as a condiment to sushi, sashimi or dumplings, unoaked Chardonnays or dry Rieslings work quite nicely as do Brut sparkling wines. In the world of reds, fine Southern Rhone or Languedoc Grenache and Carignan wines that also have umami qualities along with moderate tannins pair quite nicely with soy sauce meat dishes.


Other wine offenders

Two noble and distinctive vegetables are asparagus and artichokes. These unique, flavorful and textured foods may be gourmet delights but they are tricky wine partners. Certain compounds in asparagus give this vegetable a grassy, somewhat sulfurous quality that clashes with wines. Asparagus makes wines taste sweeter. Despite these challenges, solutions do exist. Adding wine friendly ingredients like mushrooms or Prosciutto ham helps, as do cream and cheese sauces.

Pairing wines with asparagus is a challenge, but doing the same with artichokes is even more difficult. The key culprit in artichokes is a natural occurring acid called cynarin that negatively alters the taste of wines. Cynarin makes wines taste sweet in a rather funky and repulsive way. The metallic qualities of artichokes coat one’s palate with unpleasant, slate like sensations. However, enjoying artichokes and wine together is not impossible. The key to success is the cooking method and secondary ingredients.

Grilling significantly lessens the effects of cynarin in artichokes. As French chefs discovered long ago, braising has a similar positive effect. Adding a palate coating fat like bacon, butter, garlic mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce or olive oil dressings helps make artichokes far more wine friendly. Artichokes prepared or served with bacon are also better companions for wine.

As with asparagus, the best wines to pair with artichokes are dry whites with ample acidity. Particularly good partners are New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, Spanish Abarinos, or young Chablis and Pinot Gris whites. Non dosage Champagne method sparkling wines and Brut Proseccos also fit the bill. These wines are also remarkably good companions to the cooked bitter melon dishes we love here in China.

If you’re a purist and insist on unadulterated boiled artichokes with no sauce or uncooked bitter melon served cold, then the only good wine solution is either a Manzanilla or Fino Sherry. All the aforementioned wines can save the day, however, my single favorite might just be CAVA.


The wonderful balance between fruit and acidity as well as persistent bubbles in good quality CAVAs makes them some of the most food friendly wines in the world. This includes slightly challenging soy based dishes and troublesome vegetables like asparagus, artichoke and bitter melon.

CAVA is larger than Champagne and the main grapes are the three local Spanish varieties Macabeu, Parellada, Xarel-lo. Some Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Subirat can also be used.

You can easily find CAVA wines in China. So the next time you’re eating some difficult wine pairing foods, your solution is as easy as saying Hola CAVA!


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