By Sylvaine Novel
Vietnamese food seems to be gaining popularity of late. And it’s not surprising as it fits well with the healthier food and living movement. No less than 3 new Vietnamese restaurants have openedin Central Wellington in the past year, and Auckland and Australia can count a few successful venues of their own. It may well become the “new trend”!
When I think of Vietnam, I automatically think of Asia. But how different is Vietnamese food from the Asian foods we are more familiar with, like Chinese or Thai? We are not so intimidated now as to pair Chinese or Thai food with wine; where aromatic whites and sweeter styles seem to be the go to match. But do to the same rules apply to Vietnamese food?
Not long ago I found myself facing these questions as I was asked to create a sensible wine list for a new venture. The restaurant would be offering a strong Vietnamese menu, but also a small classic French bistro menu. Reuniting 2 worlds under 1 roof in memory of their past shared history.
The French have been present in Vietnam for about 100 years. And they have influenced the cuisine to a certain degree. Some products like baguette bread and other techniques remain. But the ingredients available to the Vietnamese differ a lot to what grows in France. And let’s not forget the Khmers, Champa and especially Chinese have all brought something to the colorful palette of today’s tables in Vietnam.
As a French Sommelier and having worked in restaurants showcasing European food, identifying the styles of wines to match the French menu was the easy part. On the other hand, my experience with Vietnamese food was limited to a short holiday, some 7 or so years ago in this amazing country. Being on a budget we found the Pho’s served on the street very satisfying. Not only they’re delicious, nutritious soups but they are incredibly affordable. That and a local beer, known as Bia Hoi, was a great combination. Not to mention that wine is not that widely available in Vietnam at all.
Out of my comfort zone, I was excited, but a bit lost for references. So I started doing some research. I quickly came to realize that there isn’t much out there on Vietnamese food and wine pairing. Taking me to conclusion that it is still a fairly new area in which there is much to try and discover.
Let’s talk a bit about the food, it’s main ingredients and flavours. The Vietnamese food is all about balance of flavours, rich but subtle, and uses a lot of fresh, raw herbs and vegetables. Fish sauce, shrimp paste and soy sauce make the base of most dishes. And when it comes to spices, you find mainly lemongrass, ginger, cinnamon and bird’s eye chillies. I think we can say that the food is of fine taste, delicate, fragrant and fresh. It is also a custom to serve the fresh herbs and fresh chilli (or chilli sauce) on the side, so each can spice up their dish as desired.
Here are a few general rules I identified to match beverages with Vietnamese food:
– Favor lower alcohol wines.
Anything above 12.5/ 13% alcohol would need to be very well balanced as to make the alcohol strength seemingless.
Why? Because the alcohol heat only amplifies any chili heat from the dish, leaving a burning sensation in your mouth. Perfect occasion to enjoy those low alcohol, off-dry style rieslings often referred as German style. Look for mentions such as Kabinett and Spätlese or check the back labels for any indication of alcohol % and/or sweetness scale. T staff at your local wine shop should be able to help.
– Low tannins, in red wines.
Tannins can come from the fruit, the stem and wooden vessels used to ferment and/or age wines. They give structure and body. You want to favor fruit tannins rather than oak ones, and keep them ripe, soft and moderate, as tannins tend to turn bitter with most asian spices. Look for Gamay, Pinot Noir (softer, simpler style), Merlot, Dolcetto, Grenache blends (but watch out for alcohol here).
– Textural, Soft and Fresh.
3 terms that can be applied all round. When you want the white wines to be refreshing, they need not be sharp or hard. Too much acidity will make the match hard, grassy, unpleasant if not counterbalanced by some phenolic texture/flesh. A wine too lean will also miss softening the spices. Stay away from grassy Sauvignon Blanc, choose a riper style, maybe from Hawkes Bay, or Chile. Mediterranean whites can be good options, just check the alcohol content as they can easily be up at 14%.
– Moderate or No oak.
First of all, oaky/woody tastes just don’t play well with Vietnamese flavours. Secondly, wines with a strong wood influence can show oak tannins, which, as seen above, is best avoided, as they tend to be drier, coarser than fruit tannins. Wines that have seen seasoned oak only maybe fine, but be weary of new oak. Time to swap those big buttery Chardonnay’s for unoaked ones, and your Barossa Shiraz in favor of a Cote du Rhone or a soft Montepulciano.
– White, dry rose and sparkling wine generally work better.
Red wine needs not be excluded, only carefully selected.
– The texture and structure of the wine is more important than a complex bouquet.
– Beer is always a good choice when eating Vietnamese.
Although be wary of heavily hopped beers. Better stick to lighter styles such as Lager, Pilsner and lighter dark beers. I'm afraid the big, hoppy NZ craft beers will most likely clash.
– Dry cider can be very interesting and versatile.
A fleshier style such as french cider is best, from dry to off-dry preferably. Too lean and crisp will fail to impress just like high acidity/crisp wines.
Off-course there is much and more to say on the subject and I am still exploring the many possible matches on hand. But my intention is not to get you bored with a never ending read. So I hope this intro on pairing Vietnamese cuisine will inspire you and help you on your gastronomic journey. Another post with more specific matches, dishes descriptions and wine examples will soon follow. But the main rules outlined here will always be valid and lay a base to rely on when making your choices.
In the meantime, I wish you all some happy tastebuds adventures. ;)
Sylvain is a sommelier at Annam Restaurant in Wellington and has been working in the Restaurant & Wine trades the past 15 years.