When it comes to pairings, one universal truth tends to hold up: you're usually granted a solid match if you stay close to the source. Italians have ragù alla Bolognese with sangiovese; rosé and bouillabaisse are French for PB&J. Proximity tends to be a safeguard from making a terrible choice.
And when it comes to drinking wine with food, I'm an equal opportunity imbiber. My credo: All food deserves the privilege of good wine. But when a cuisine doesn't "grow up" with vino, the search for the right bottle gets trickier; food with no wine to anchor it in the historical sense lands us in lawless territory—the Wine Wild West.
Take Thai food, for example, which I guess would technically be the Wild South East.
I opened the dialogue with experts in the field, and sommeliers were hot as bird's eye chili. Some declared off-dry Riesling the gold standard; others insisted that's too obvious—funky, dirty wines go best.
One advised against pairing wine and Thai food at all, cautioning that it was a blatant dismissal of tradition. Better to drink beer instead.
Whoa. This stance made me nervous. I wondered whether it was culturally insensitive to drink wine with curry, some kind of farang bastardization of Thai cuisine. But I wasn't convinced.
I talked to Adam Weisblatt of Same Same, a new Silverlake wine bar that serves not the typical fancy cheeses and charcuterie, but Thai food. Since wine plays a central role in the experience there, I was curious whether this notion of tradition factored in when creating their list.
"We want people to focus on enjoying themselves before they start considering what is 'right' or 'wrong' about what their eating and drinking," Weisblatt said. "And wine is a beverage to enjoy every day, regardless of setting or foods served."
A-fucking-men. This isn't about politically correct eating. It's about the pure pleasure of combined loves. And when you start dissecting pleasure, you run the risk of ruining the whole damn thing.
So, these are guidelines (not rules) for how to choose or bring the best bottle at (or to bring to) your favorite Thai restaurant. Whether it's the hole-in-the-wall gem with an uber-traditional, prohibitively spicy menu, or one of those Americanized joints where you'll be ordering pad Thai (no shame), sometimes you just want to drink wine with friends at dinner.
Also, I've got you covered on grabbing the right bottle at home (and how to start stockpiling a good stash) when you're faced with an empty fridge and must order Thai food for survival.
To enjoy wine alongside dishes dosed with fish sauce, lemongrass, peanuts, chilis, dried shrimp, galangal, papaya salad, duck larb, curry, and coconut, just know this:
Reds CAN Work! Colder reds are great because you're probably sweating (be honest, crying) from spice. A chill adds such freshness to the wine, easing the heat of alcohol (which amplifies the burn of spice). Gamay (try Beaujolais) is a go-to: It's savory with persistent, lush fruit. Mouthfuls of wild strawberry moderate salty bites and go with peanut dishes like…wait for it: peanut butter and jelly. Plus gamay isn't acidic, so it won't shred your tender mouthparts.
Drink: Gilles Paris Fleurie, a quenching wine with loads of red fruit and an umami twang. Also explore German varietals like Trollinger and St. Laurent, which chill great. Scribe Winery recently released one of my favorite iterations of St. Laurent—delicious and almost minty served cold. Loire reds like Saumur Champigny (cab franc) or Pineau d'Aunis also elevate smoky, charred meat, leafy greens and funky fish sauce. Just avoid heavy, oaked reds—imagine pouring vanilla frosting on fresh herbs. And if you're not a masochist looking to discover new pain thresholds (not judging if you are, and in that case, I dare you to try Barolo), save high-alcohol, tannic reds for different meal.
Bubbles Are Your Friend There's a reason beer works well with Thai food. Sparkling wines follow suit. Soft bubbles from pétillant-naturel wines work magic on chili and creamy fats like coconut broths and fragrant curries. Ask for "pét-nat" at your local wine shop for instant insider cred and a virtual skeleton key to the goods.
Hunt down: bottles produced by Capriades, Jousset, Johan, and Scar of the Sea; stash these and keep them on heavy rotation. The yeasty, doughy character of Champagne, méthode traditionelle, and crémant-style wines also highlights flavors like coriander and the starchy texture of rice dishes. Look for sparklers like txakoli, crémant d'Alsace and chenin-based bubbles from Montlouis or Vouvray for value.
Try a Little Sweetness Myth: dry is synonymous with quality. Nah, totally outdated. Wine comes from grapes and grapes have sugars. RS (residual sugar) imparts viscosity and moderates spice, so flavors like galangal, delicate fresh basil, leafy lettuces and green papaya can shine.
The trick: Find wines with sweetness and acidity. Besides accenting complex sour flavors like lemongrass and tamarind, acid balances wine, keeping the RS effect perky and gentle. Off-dry riesling is great, but so is chenin blanc, gewürztraminer, grüner veltliner, and Alsatian whites like pinot gris. Look for demi-sec, off-dry, and spätlese on the label.
Get Out of the Rosé Comfort Zone Rosé is more than flowers and citrus. Darker colors cue weight and texture, complimenting rich flavors like duck or fermented pork sausage.
Try: Le Sot de L'ange La Boutanche (grolleau, Loire), Domaine Faillenc Sainte Marie Rosé des Glacieres (syrah, Languedoc), and Vini Rabasco Cancelli Rosato (Italy) are personal favs.
If You Can Find a Wine with More Than One of These Factors, Even Better
Off-dry sparkling cab franc? Win. Sparkling chenin blanc? Genius. Cold dry red with bubbles like, say, Lambrusco? Gamay-based rosé? Yes and yes.
Just remember: Eating is communal. As dishes travel around the table, open a bottle and pass that around, too. Like my friends at Same Same say: "It's just fermented grape juice. Drink it, enjoy it, get a nice little buzz, and create a great evening." The possibilities are vast.