Samui Wining & Dining
Pairing Wine with Thai Food

It’s trendy, but does it work?


22Matching wine with Thai food has long been a subject that provokes intense debate amongst the food and beverage professionals here. For years after my arrival, I tended to fall into the “it’s not really advisable” school of thought. The idea of ruining a delicate red wine with overpoweringly spicy flavours seemed too risky to consider. I suppose, because of my obsessive love for it, my philosophy has always been to protect wine. I also believe that really good wines are so (relatively) expensive in Thailand, that one needs the reassurance that they are being married to the best possible food partner. However, having recently spoken with some younger 'next generation' wine professionals, who unlike me show very little fear of combining wine with spice, I’m starting to realize that I have probably been a bit of a dinosaur on this topic. I still cling to my belief that very chilled medium sweet white, sparkling and rosé wines work the best with most Thai dishes. But, I am now prepared to admit that careful red wine pairing is also possible.

    A well-respected and up-and-coming sommelier I know has just finished compiling a wine list, for a very up-market new Thai restaurant in Bangkok. When I quizzed him on his approach to this critical task, he explained that he focused on grape varieties. “For reds, we are showcasing fruit that carries a lot of freshness, wines that aren’t too tannic. And for whites, aromatic varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and white Rhône - Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. The key thing that you have to remember is to have wines that are as, if not more, powerful than the dish. The wines need to have a big personality. And I’m not necessarily looking for sweetness. I go more for fruit definition and a balance of acidity and tannins. Good wines, at the end of the day.”

      Australia has a big appeal for him, and the country’s wines outnumber French wines on the list. They generally carry more fruit and are less dry, which is what is needed. South Africa, too, has a fair few listings. And he would have put more Spanish and Portuguese reds on, if he thought he could sell them. “I love their fleshy, upfront fruit with deep complexity, perfect for this food, but they’re just not in fashion.”

       Another focus for the new list is wines that show minerality. This goes hand in hand with a wine’s freshness. A wine with minerality and freshness has a similar effect to yoghurt on hot dishes. He finds a ready source of these wines through organic and biodynamic producers in the Languedoc and Loire Valley, making a note on the wine list to alert customers of their status. Although these wines can be strange sometimes, they smell like bruised apples, but it’s all to do with the wild yeast, which gives freshness, and which also goes very well with Thai cuisine. The restaurant has an impressive 130 wines on its list, all focusing on grape varieties, and also drawing from all over the world. They introduced 375ml carafes to the restaurant, which are going down well, and perhaps most importantly, encouraging diners to experiment

  As pad Thai is one of my all-time favourite comfort foods, but I never quite know what wine to pair with it (let alone far more spicy dishes), I took the golden opportunity to ask for expert recommendations on some popular Thai dishes:


Pad Thai       : The classic fried noodle dish, served with crushed peanuts.

Wine Pairing : Chardonnay (alternatives: Alsatian wines, Australian Semillon, Italian Chianti). Californian Chardonnay is perfect, but any Chardonnay with low alcohol, high acids and balance can work well. Low alcohol is important, especially with spiciness. Highly acidic Chianti works because it helps clean the palate, and you're getting some oils with pad Thai.


Tom Yum      :  A sour and spicy soup.

Wine Pairing : Chardonnay again, but a more fruit-forward un-oaked version (alternative: Riesling). Be careful with oaked Chardonnay, because the spice will accent that, and it's just too much. Go with un-oaked. A little residual sugar, and you'll have a better pairing. In the balance of spice versus fruit, you want more fruit on the nose, or more sugar in the glass.



Yam Talay     : Seafood salad.

Wine Pairing : European Pinot Grigio/Gris (alternative: white Rhône Viognier). Thai salads are often dominated by lime juice or tamarind. For these types of dishes, it’s important that the wine chosen has a good level of acidity to support the acid in the food. Flat, flabby, low-acidity wine will be overwhelmed when paired with these sour dishes. Acidic wines are also good with salty food, so they pair well with salty Thai dishes. This may sound a little counter-intuitive, but even when you choose slightly sweet, off-dry wines, make sure that they have a good level of acidity in the background.


Chicken Satay : Char-grilled marinated chicken in a peanut based sauce (originally an Indonesian dish but widely adopted on Thai menus).

Wine Pairing   : Cabernet (alternatives: Riesling, Rosé). Althoug h it’s white meat, a red wine will match, just avoid too much tannin at all costs.


Panang Nuea   : A hot and spicy red curry with beef.

Wine Pairing    : Barbera (alternatives: Saumur-Champigny, Cru Beaujolais). Definitely go with a wine with some residual sugar. You're getting spice, so you need a sweeter wine. The very classic style of low tannin and ripe Barbera can be a good match, as can juicy Saumur-Champigny and fruity Beaujolais.


           I have to admit, some of these suggestions come as a revelation to me, but they have renewed my desire to start experimenting again with my beloved wine and Samui’s deliciously vibrant Thai cuisine. Pad Thai with Chianti… who knew?!

Peter James



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