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Pairing Korean cuisine with the right wines
2014-02-21
By John H. Isacs

I’ve oft heard the comment that pairing wines with Korean food is a difficult and frequently failing task. Like many things in life, it’s possible if you follow certain guidelines.

Some of the most popular Korean foods like grilled meats or seafood are exceedingly easy to pair with wines, while the much-beloved kimchi side dishes do present a challenge.

These challenges, however, need not lead to disaster.

In fact, many Western cuisines also feature fermented and pickled dishes and somehow wines have been successfully and enjoyably paired.

Before delving into the challenges of pairing this zesty icon of Korean cuisine with wine, let’s take a look at its history and place in a Korean meal.

King kimchi

Peoples of the Korean peninsula have a long history of salting and fermenting vegetables.

Zymology or the science of fermenting foods and drinks most likely predates the ancient Three Kingdoms Period (AD 57-668).

By the 16th century in the mid Joseon Dynasty, more than 95 types of kimchi had been documented.

But the fiery red kimchi that’s immensely popular today only appeared in the 19th century when chili peppers native to Central America were introduced by Europeans.

In modern South Korea, kimchi means much more than just Napa cabbage.

There are hundreds of variations made from a vast array of vegetables including radish, cucumber, bean sprouts, spinach, seaweed, lotus root and mushrooms to name just a few.

Modern science has also taught us that in addition to being delicious, kimchi is healthy. Kimchi, like yogurt, contains bacteria lactobacilli, a powerful digestive aid, as well as vitamins A, B1, B2, calcium and iron.

However, as integral as kimchi is to a Korean meal, it doesn’t stand alone. Herein lies one of our important secrets to successful Korean food and wine pairing.

Diversity & focus

The Korean dinner table often combines a wide range of bold flavors, textures and aromas. This predicament of diversity begs for a focused approach.

One principle in wine pairing worth observing in this case is concentrating on the main dish and not getting caught up with the plethora of small side dishes and dipping sauces. If the main dish is barbecued meats, then pick a red wine that’s not easily overwhelmed by tasty, often marinated meats.

Best are fruity and spicy reds like Californian Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz and Spanish Grenacha or Tempranillo wines. Avoid overtly oaky or tannic reds.

As with Chinese cuisine, seafood may also be served at the same time as meats. In these cases, fresher reds like young New World Pinots and Italian Barbera or Chianti wines are fine solutions. An equally good choice would be a chilled village or Cru level Beaujolais red.

Successfully serving reds with Korean BBQ and kimchi also necessitates disciplined sequenced eating. Go ahead and enjoy all the kimchi you like, but each time before drinking the wine try rebooting your palate by eating a morsel of meat or starch. Good results are guaranteed.

If you’re a kimchi fanatic and need a wine to match these tasty fermented treats then you’re best sticking to a fairly intense, fresh dry white wine.

Think Spanish Albarino, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Italian Vernaccia. All these wines have a rather expressive and assertive personality that matches well with the bold nature of many Korean dishes.

When the kimchi is particularly spicy or stimulating then your best choice is a Fino or Manzanilla Sherry. These fortified wines have the intensity to stand up to even the most extreme versions of kimchi.

In fact, whether it’s fiery kimchi or other spicy and pungent Asian dishes that are difficult to pair with most wines, Sherry is often your best wine companion.

We don’t hear too much about the versatility of these wines as most regional wine professionals have little experience with these fortified beauties. But trust me; it’s exceedingly difficult to find a challenging Asian dish that doesn’t pair well with one style of Sherry.

When your table includes a little bit of everything including barbecued meats, kimchi, seafood and soups then a fairly robust rose wine is a good choice.

Choose the more deeply colored Spanish-style rose wines from Spain, Chile or Argentina rather than lighter French or Italian rose wines as they have a broader range of matching possibilities with meats but are still quite nice with seafood.

They also have the acidity and vibrancy to accommodate moderate levels of spiciness and sourness. In this category of wines, I highly recommend the Marques de Riscal Rosado from Rioja, Spain and Chocolan Syrah Petit Verdot Rose from Maipo, Chile.

They’re two of my favorite bold style roses available in Shanghai and real champions with Korean food. A Spanish rose sparkler like Freixenet Cordon Rosado is also a fine choice.

This week’s column featuring Korean food and wine was a challenging but rather enjoyable task. Next week I face an even more daunting wine pairing quandary — modern fusion cuisine.

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