I have always been a huge fan of Korean food. The soups and stews are like mother’s milk: warm, comforting and therapeutic. I am not, however, a big fan of Korean beer or light beer in general. I don’t think it does justice to this complex cuisine.
Despite the fact that most Korean restaurants don’t have extensive wine lists, many will let you bring your own for a nominal fee. The spice profile of many of these dishes calls for crisp whites with a touch of residual sugar. Even the rice dishes, such as bibimbap, tend to be spicy on their own or through the addition of sauce. Many of the barbecued meats can fare better with a carefully chosen white, as they can make a red wine taste metallic.
Kenny Lee grew up in a Korean family in Las Vegas that owns a chain of wine shops. He has always been my go-to guy for Korean food and wine pairing insight. We have often been found dining late at night in Vegas over Korean dishes and wine. His family also just opened a restaurant called Lee’s Korean BBQ that features all-you-can-eat barbecue 24 hours a day, with a Korean soup breakfast in the morning.
“Korean food is traditionally paired with beer and soju due to the lack of wines available back in Korea,” said Lee. He did note that this is changing, particularly in Los Angeles’ booming Koreatown.
Lee agrees with me that sweet and fruity wines, such as sparkling wines and particularly rieslings, are the perfect match for many of these dishes.
“I love it with New Zealand sauvignon blanc with citrus and grapefruit notes, dry Alsatian riesling, or pinot blanc or trocken and halbtrocken German wines.”
It is particularly easy to seek out sweeter German wines, as the sugar level of the grapes at harvest is indicated on the bottle, with Kabinetts being the driest types available. Auslese and spatleses will have more sweetness to them, as will halbtrocken or dry wines. A little Austrian or Canadian ice wine might also do the trick.
“Higher the spice levels, the sweeter wines tend to pair well for me,” Lee said.
Because of the sweet, salty and spicy combo of flavors in Korean food, you will want to stay away from big, tannic red wines, even with the meat dishes. Many of the fuller-bodied local red California wines like zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon could overwhelm the food’s flavors.
While I would still stick to whites for the pork barbecue — think fizzy vinho verdes from Portugal or a Chilean sauvignon blanc with a hint of sugar — lower-alcohol and cooler-climate reds can work well with the classic barbecue beef dishes such as kalbi and bulgogi. You might try a pinot noir from Oregon or Burgundy. French Loire Valley reds, such as Chinon, would also be beautiful, as might a light-bodied barbera from northern Italy.
Liza B. Zimmerman is the principal of the Liza the Wine Chick, a writing and consulting business. She has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has worked almost every angle of the wine and food business, from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.