You've been there: staring dumbly at a wine rack in the grocery, wondering if a Riesling or a Cabernet Sauvignon will go down better with the utterly traditional salu-salo at Lola Anchang’s that you'll be attending tonight. You'll be glad to know that the rules of pairing wine with food—originally conceived for Western delicacies like blue cheese, roast beef, and foie gras—are flexible enough to accommodate Filipino food, too.
"There are no rules, actually," says Chie Gatchalian, proprietor of the wine education and party enterprise 5½ Twists (www.facebook.com/5.5Twists). "Traditionally, people will say red meat goes with red wine, white meat goes with white wine. But sometimes you also have to take into consideration not just the type of meat, but how it's cooked. That's where flavors come in."
For starters, fatty, oily, and deep-fried food go best with highly acidic wines. "Most of the time, that [means] a white wine," explains Chie. "Crispy pata, lechon kawali, these usually go with a Sauvignon Blanc. It's always a winner."
Fried seafood favorites like pinaputok na pla-pla and crispy crablets have an ideal partner in the food-friendly Riesling. This white wine "is pretty versatile, and will also go well with a wide range of Filipino dishes, including moderately spicy ones," Chie says. Dishes like kare-kare partner favorably with a dry Riesling, while spicy sisig pairs well with sweeter varieties: "The sugar cuts into the spice. So the wine makes the food a lot more enjoyable, and vice versa."
Meaty, saucy food—kaldereta or mechado among them—pair up well with acidic reds such as Chianti or Brunello, Chie says. In fact, Italian red wines are Chie's automatic choices for any dish rich in tomato sauce: "In Italy, all their sauces are tomato-based, and almost all of the Italian wines are also reds," says Chie.
An oily adobo, on the other hand, "goes really well with a Rhone blend," explains Chie. "It's not a single variety, but a mix of three different [kinds of] grapes: Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvédre."
Then you have robust, highly flavorful dishes—grilled or smoked meats. Chie explains that these dishes require equally robust wines "that have a very good structure. [These wines have] high tannin levels, and [are] not so flabby that [they] will be overpowered by the food."
Since Filipinos usually prefer to eat embotido, morcon, and chicken galantine with ketchup on the side, Chie recommends a Merlot to go with these. "The [dishes'] flavors are not so bold, so it's also good to go with a softer red wine."
Dishes with gata (coconut milk) present an iffy situation. "If it is too coconut-ty, I would stay away from wine," she suggests. "The combination of alcohol and coconut milk might not sit well with everybody." However, eaters with more stout constitutions might take a page from Thai food enthusiasts, who have learned to serve gata-rich Thai dishes with Riesling.
If you must bring a dessert wine to the salu-salo, Chie suggests, "Your wine should be as sweet as the dessert, if not sweeter so it won’t fade into the background." However, most Filipino taste buds aren’t geared towards an ultra-sweet dessert wine.
Chie also does not believe that wine can go with every Filipino dish. "One thing that I will NOT serve with wine are our soups: nilaga, sinigang," she explains.
One final word of advice when you're casing those wine shelves: Chie suggests you stick to wines produced in the "New World" (i.e. South Africa, Australia, Chile and the U.S., specifically California). Wines produced in these countries are less strong and more fruity than their European counterparts. And these are what many Filipinos, especially the non-wine drinkers, prefer to sip.