PAIR WINE WITH CHINESE FOOD
- Denny Wang, YATS Wine Cellars

Wondering what wine to pair with Chinese food? Despite what everyone tells you, it is quite easy to pair wine with Chinese food. Let YATS Wine Cellars give you a hand with planning the wine pairing for your next Chinese dinner.

Wine-Food Pairing Notes

(A)
Challenges and strategies

Pairing wine with Chinese food has always been regarded as a tricky if not impossible proposition. There are three reasons to support this anxiety.

  1. Chinese food is too well integrated – most dishes are complete with balancing components of starch, vegetables and meat – leaving very little role for a wine to play in that equation.
  2.  Traditional Chinese food does not use Western wine in the cooking. The easy-way-out of drinking the same type of wine that is used to cook the food isn’t all that useful here.
  3.  This one is actually the ultimate killer really. It is a psychological barrier. A lot of people approach this problem with a pre-conceived notion that wine won’t really work with Chinese food. A negative attitude is the single most challenging element in this game.

 

Strangely enough, the (western) wine world had arrived at a curiously generic conclusion that the best kind of wines for Chinese food is something that is slightly sweet and by that they meant off-dry, “trochen” in German wines and sec/seco in Sparkling terminology but basically an RS level of 10-15g/l. There is some sense behind this rule-of-thumb, underlining the word “some”. The problem with using an off-dry wine is it is boring, playing it too safe, making the wine as unobtrusive as possible, avoiding conflicts at the cost of potential brilliance of synergy.

We are always given a choice of two kinds of strategies in each pairing, namely (1) similarity and (2) contrast. An example of a classic application of similarity is Beef Burgundy with a red burgundy, and for contrast, Foie Gras with Sauternes. With Chinese food, I find myself more inclined to try my luck with contrasts. Similarities are not easy to find especially with stuff like fermented bean curd and shrimp paste. But this only applies to the flavor component.

The other important factor – weight – must be matched appropriately especially with the liquid part of the dish. A lot of heavy dishes in Chinese cuisine also come with high flavor intensity. Finding a wine with muscles and weight is not a problem. What is challenging is to find one of those that has good acidity and is not tannic. This kind of combinations happens mostly with very good wine only. With so little faith in wine pairing for Chinese food, it is not often that people open a good bottle for a Chinese meal.


Another factor that comes very much into play not necessarily in wine selection but more in the fine-tuning of food preparation is the serving temperature. Some Chinese dishes are designed to be taken steaming hot. There is no wine that is designed to match that kind of serving temperatures. Ice-cold beers have always been preferred probably more as a role of a fire-extinguisher. Often these dishes are avoided in wine-paired dinners and when they make their way onto the menu, the serving temperatures have to be reduced a little.

One might also take note of the fact that Chinese cuisine is evolving also. Usage of strong bullion-based stock sometimes laced with MSG is fast going out of style, replaced by more organic bases. Covering up flaws of not-so-fresh ingredients with heaps of ginger and leeks for example become less and less of a necessity. Kitchens have much more reliable access to fresher ingredients of much higher quality and that gives chefs the confidence to showcase their natural flavors. Then came the introduction of (western) wine into traditional Chinese recipes both in caramelizing and in braising. This greatly exposed these foods to opportunities for better wine pairing.

In almost all cases, pairing wine with food is not always a desk job. With one variable – wine - in the formula being a constant, I would often tweak the food component a little to give the pairing a lending hand. A competent kitchen can make all sorts of impossible things work out nicely. There is a considerable amount of “laboratory” work behind the scene but who’s complaining? In the future, a technique called table-blending will be added to the toy box for precision pairings.

This dinner comprises of a good mix of heavier recipes and some other that are designed to bring out the natural flavors of the key ingredients. A few dishes have more than one dominating components which means the wine will only pair well with one of those components, not two. Probably the best way to enjoy those courses is to take a bite of the food that is the target for that pairing, enjoying it with a sip of the wine, and then move on to the other (dominating) component which often cleanses the palate for another go at it again.

Hope you enjoy the evening.

 

Thanks very much

Denny Wang

 

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Wine@Yats-International.com

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(B)
A few words on each pairing

 

Deep-fried King Prawns Balls Coated with Cornflakes
玉米片蝦球
1998 Meursault, Chateau De Guettes, Francois Parent

It was a close call between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc with the latter being the safer bet. I decided on the Meursault primarily because I want the wine to be the star in this act, using the Prawn Balls to entice you to reach for one sip after another. To me this is a wine course. Enjoy the Meursault.

 

Whole roasted Duck
with fresh mango fruits
鴨 香芒果
1995 Morey-Saint-Denis, Chartron et Frebuchet

This along with the tofu course is probably the most exquisite course of the evening. Classic food with classic wine, duck and a Red Burgundy is always a winner. The mango is there to help cleanse the palate for another bite and a sip. It is not an integral part of the sauce nor is it infused into the duck at all, so it was disregarded in the pairing equation.

 

Pan-fried Black Pepper Beef Steak
黑椒煎牛柳
1993 Gigondas, Las Haute Boissiere, La Cave Gigondas des Vignerons

This is not a difficult pairing. Steak au Poivre has traditionally been paired successfully with Rhone wine. The syrah and Grenache give the blend a good heap of spices to avoid being drowned out by the black pepper. However I don’t want to focus all my attention on the black pepper. There is beef steak there and it doesn’t like a spicy wine with a lot of unresolved tannins, so I picked a bottle with just a bit of age so hard tannins are pretty much resolved. I also chose the Gigondas over a CdP because I want a more rustic general impression. Elegance and finesse aren’t exactly what I am looking for in this course.

 

Fried Stuffed Crab Shell
煎釀蟹蓋
2006 J B Riesling, Rheingau Germany

Well here we go, a slightly off-dry (meaning only a hint of sweetness) German Riesling to go with the crab is a safe play. Unlike the Prawn Balls, I don’t necessarily want this to be a wine course. There can be a lot of interesting things going on in the stuffed shell and these deserve some undivided attention. I picked this charming classic Rheingau Riesling over a Gewurztraminer or a Viognier mainly because of its weight. I don’t want too much weight in the wine because I expect the food to be quite elegant.


Roasted Suckling Pig Skin
Served on a bed of Chinese Pan Cake
豬塊
1992 Duas Quintas Douro Reserva, Ramos Pinto

Everyone knows that the Portuguese love their suckling pigs as much as the Chinese. Who cares who invented what these day except that the pairing of Portuguese dry red wine with roasted suckling pick is a classic? Ramos Pinto’s Duas Quintas may not be a house-hold name in these parts but it is a “Grand Cru Classe” in their neck of the woods. This is serious stuff that merits attention. The pig skins should bring out its herbal nuances and mineral undertone nicely. Beware of the sauce. Nothing can deal with too much of that.

Like Grange from Australia and Vega Sicilia from Spain, Portugal has Barca Velha, a legendary icon. It wasn’t until the 70s that a few others obtained a membership to that exclusive club. The new-comers included Quinta do Cotto’s Grand Eschola and Ramos Pinto’s Duas Quintas.

 

Braised Home-made Tofu with 3 kinds of Mushrooms
野菌红烧豆腐
1999 Cote du Rhone Blanc, Guigal

Viognier and Bean curd have been a proven success. The combination of floral and spice qualities provides a bit of lift to the dish. The only question was what kind of Viognier? This is where the mushrooms come into the picture. I am looking for a medium-bodied rendition with some earthy undertones, a white that is not all spice, flowers and fruit. I turned to Rhone for a solution. Although most Cote-du-Rhone Blanc is made from Marsanne, Roussane, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Ugni Blanc, Guigal’s adopts a cepage that is predominantly Viogner. With the prices he fetches for his wine, he is one of the few that can do this with a Cote-du-Rhone Blanc label.

 

Saute Lamb in Satay Sauce
沙茶醬香煎
2003 Barolo, Ricossa Piedmonte Italy

I have to confess that his one had me worried for a long time. I wasn’t too sure about the Satay Sauce, worried sick at one point that it might be a SE Asia version which would be heavy on ginger and peanut, not my favorite ingredients when it comes to wine pairing. As it turns out, it is not. We have also been assured that this is not that spicy a dish as its name might imply. Taken all into consideration, I decided to look for the cooked or even burnt flavors (to match the Satay) of a hot-year red. But I chose to step away from Bordeaux or France altogether to look for acidity in Italy or Spain. After tasting a few 03 reds from Tuscany, I narrowed it down to Piedmonte and Rioja for the desired result. I couldn’t get myself to match lamb with a Rioja so here we are, after a process of elimination, with a Barolo. This particular Barolo strikes me as a more flowery version but has a bit of licorice and not too much oak, thankfully. Oak would get me in trouble with the Satay Sauce.

 
 

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