Two to Tango

Food & Drink - October 6th, 2009

by J.K.Whelehan

‘The Bordeaux five’ is a term used to refer to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. Each grape has its own character and cycle, and in bygones days it was not uncommon to plant them side by side as insurance against the vagaries of the weather. Today field blends are not so common, and Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc now dominate Bordeaux, and the former two the world. In fact, Malbec has all but disappeared from Bordeaux (its only bastion now in France is Cahors in the southwest), to be reborn as an Argentine icon.


Today beef and Malbec have both become synonymous with Argentina, and are indeed a perfect pair when it comes to food and wine matching in Japan. Malbec is inherently tannic and acidic, yet in the climate of its adopted home it produces wines with less acidity and riper, richer fruit accentuated by a higher alcohol content. The concentrated, almost sweet fruit character, highlighted by the alcohol, bears up to beef dishes produced in traditional Japanese style, such as sukiyaki and nikujaga, creating a perfect foil for the dishes.

While Malbec is now garnishing the spotlight, one should not overlook Torrontés, Argentina’s other budding prodigy. This is a fragrant white slightly reminiscent of Gewurztraminer, and is worth exploring, especially if you belong to the ‘ABC’ group (anything but chardonnay). One of the difficulties with aromatic varieties is that they tend to have a slightly bitter finish. The Argentines have circumvented this in many cases by leaving a little residual sugar. In most case the wine will still be perceived as dry, however the extra weight and fruitiness allow it to bear up to many Japanese dishes. Its distinctive aromas can substitute for herbs in neutral dishes such as hiyayakko tofu, or compete with herbs in salads. Try matching it with green salad, grape seed oil and kabosu dressing, or other strong flavored vegetables with a citrus-based dressing.

J.K. Whelehan is a Tokyo-based wine expert and writer, as well as co-author of the best-selling book Japanese Dishes for Wine Lovers, published by Kodansha and available from Amazon.

Photo credit:

Photo courtesy of J.K. Whelehan