Having a meal separated by courses makes it easier to compartmentalize the flavor profile and texture of a given dish. However, with Asian food, wine pairings generally should be approached differently because all the dishes in a meal are often eaten at the same time. This is especially true with Korean food, which is served family style with many different types of ‘banchan’ (side dishes). The presence of fermented flavors and frequent use of chilies makes it even more challenging to pair Korean food with wine.
The complexity of flavors in a typical Korean meal makes it nearly impossible to create a “perfect” pairing, but you can try to partner wines that will provide harmony and avoid conflict. The wild mix of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami with a lot of heat often found in Korean food generally pair better with wines that are dry to off-dry, not overly sweet or dense, and not too tannic. The wines need to be well balanced and show boldness, ripeness, and body without being too cloying or heavy.
Many people assume the sweeter the better for wine as the dish heats up with spice, but in reality, the sweetness will take away from the flavors. Off-dry is the sweetest level you should go with. Off-dry refers to just a hint of residual sugar (essentially the amount of sugar left in the wine after fermentation is complete) detectable in a wine. The subjective sweetness of a wine is determined by the interaction of several factors, including the amount of sugar in the wine, but also the relative levels of alcohol, acids, and tannins. Sugars and alcohol enhance a wine's sweetness; acids (sourness) and bitter tannins counteract it.
We've tested combinations of various traditional Korean dishes along with a variety of wines and below is what we have discovered thus far.
This dish is a rice bowl topped with vegetables, meat, and egg mixed together with a spicy red chili sauce. You can make it completely vegetarian and skip the meat. Our recommendation is to go with an aromatic white wine with just a touch of sweetness like a Riesling, Arneis, or Kerner. With meat in the dish, try a rosé from Bandol or a medium bodied red wine with moderate alcohol such as a well-balanced grenache or pinot noir.
Bulgogi (marinated grilled beef), rice, kimchi, and a variety of side dishes
This combination exemplifies the wild mix of flavors you often find in a Korean meal. Not only is there meat, the meat is marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, and sugar (I like to use agave syrup). This is the ultimate umami, sweet, salty combination. In addition, the banchans will most definitely include kimchee and other fermented vegetables. Here you get spicy, salty, sour to accompany the umami influences from the meat. Dry Rosés from Bandol work well and red wines with pronounced fruit flavors, medium body, low to medium tannins, bright acidity, and moderate alcohol work better, such as a young Pinot Noir or Cru Beaujolais.
Japchae can be vegetarian or include beef flavored similarly to bulgogi. There are strong umami flavors in this dish with soy sauce being a significant ingredient. The noodles are rather delicate and the vegetables retain a crispy texture. With these qualities in mind, aromatic white wines with a bit of weight and show purity of fruit partner well with Japchae. Try a Vouvray or Kerner.
Pajeon or Haemul Pajeon
This dish is a typical appetizer served pancake style with scallions and the Haemul version is chock full of seafood as well. White wines with good acidity, depth, and texture along with hints of herbs and stone fruits pair well. This would be lovely with a Gruner Veltliner.
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