By Sharon Kapnick
Years ago, my friends and I would invariably drink beer with Chinese food. While beer was, and remains, a fine partner with many Chinese dishes, we were learning to love wine. We were captivated by the whole new world of exciting bouquets and flavors. We just had to discover what wines went best with Chinese food.
So we did some research and some experimenting, and learned a thing or two. Because different people have different tastes, you’ll probably have to do some experimenting of your own. But here are some guidelines that will help:
When matching food with wine, there are several basic rules to keep in mind:
1) Similar foods and wines pair well. A delicate dish, for example, demands a delicate, light-bodied wine, and a hearty, rib-warming meal calls for a rich, powerful, full-bodied wine.
2) Contrasting foods and wines can also be good partners, although these matches are trickier.
3) Food and wine should complement, rather than overpower, each other. As wine importer Rudi Wiest likes to say, “Whatever’s on the plate is already dead. You don’t have to kill it again.” You don’t want a wine that will overwhelm a dish; you want one that will stand up to it.
4) Fiery dishes are best with wines that are low in tannins and alcohol, which fan the flames, and with off-dry (slightly sweet) and sweet wines, which tone them down.
5) In general, the lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine.
6) If beer goes well with a dish, sparkling wine usually will too.
7) Here’s a rule of thumb: The milder the dish, the drier the wine; the spicier, the fruitier; the hotter, the sweeter.
There are other factors that should be taken into account, like cooking methods. Fried foods, for example, are great with sparkling wines because the bubbles cut through the richness. And then there’s seasonality: The wine you chose to accompany roast duck served on a cold winter’s day shouldn’t be the wine you pour with roast duck on a patio. Sauces, too, play a crucial role in deciding what wine to select, which is especially important in a cuisine like Chinese. In fact, as wine importer Terry Theise advises, you should “match the wine to the sauce, not to the meat. Orange-flavored beef calls for sweet Riesling, not Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”
TAO OF CHINESE MEALS
It’s also important to keep in mind two other distinctive things about Chinese food: 1) the frequent combinations of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors, which play a great part in determining which wines are appropriate, and 2) the wide array of vegetable, tofu, seafood, poultry, pork and beef dishes served at the same meal. Given all these factors, it may be tempting to raise your hands in surrender and say, “I’ll have a Tsing Tao.” But, in a way, all these considerations make the choice of wine easy: The best thing to do is to serve the most food-friendly wines.
And there are no more versatile wines than sparkling wines. One of their many virtues is that they can be served throughout the meal. While sparkling wine may not necessarily be the best wine for a particular dish, it’s usually at worst a good accompaniment–and often much more. Sparkling wine doesn’t have strong flavors or tannins that overwhelm food; its thousands of tiny bubbles do a stellar job of cleansing and refreshing the palate; and its acidity and fruit temper spicy heat in food. Sparkling wines are wonderful with Chinese food. (The Chinese themselves gravitate toward bubbles with meals, although bubbles of a different sort: They often mix carbonated drinks like 7-Up with wine, whiskey or brandy.) These days there are many excellent, inexpensive sparkling wines on the market.
If expense is not an issue or you are celebrating a special occasion, you might opt for Champagne. As importer Theise says, “Don’t forget Champagne! In fact, never forget Champagne.” (Actually, I personally would be likelier to forget my own name than to ever forget Champagne!) Champagnes and some sparkling wines come in several sweetness levels: Brut nature (aka Extra brut and Ultra brut): bone dry; Brut: no perceptible sweetness; Extra dry: slightly sweet; Sec: noticeable sweetness; Demi sec: very sweet; Doux: sweetest of all. (Brut is most common.)
After sparkling wines, when eating Chinese, I turn to Alsace and its food friendly, aromatic white wines. Their fruity flavors and (generally) high acidity cool the palate and complement flavorful, spicy and sweet dishes. Their lack of oak is also a plus. “[Aromatic] white wines excel particularly with cuisines that are challenging for other wines,” especially those with some sweetness or hot spiciness, write Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy in Wine Styles. “Alsace wines in general are great choices when the meal has you wondering what wines could possibly work.”
There are several Alsace wines to consider. Riesling is its outstandingly flexible star. (Actually many think it’s the greatest and most versatile of all white wines.) It’s an excellent choice when you want one wine to serve with many different dishes-–from seafood to fowl to meat. It can be fruity, flowery, sometimes minerally, usually crisp, often elegant. Pinot Blanc, sometimes called the poor man’s Chardonnay, is a light, crisp, fresh, lively, delicate, all-purpose wine. Pinot Gris is like Chardonnay in weight and texture. It’s dry, rich, round, opulent, powerful, complex, sometimes smoky, with lots of fruit flavors. While it has the acidity of a white wine, it’s full bodied and can often take the place of a red. Pinot Gris is an excellent choice with very flavorful dishes. Gewürztraminer is extremely expressive and exotic, highly aromatic, with scents of lychees, rose petals and honeysuckle. It’s full bodied and sometimes slightly sweet. For these reasons, it’s often recommended with spicy cuisines.
Also at the top of the list as accompaniments to Chinese food are German Rieslings. Generally low in alcohol, they have high acidity, which makes them crisp, fresh, zesty and good with food. The sugar in them is balanced by acidity. They can handle the wide range of dishes served at Chinese meals. (Some pair Rieslings with game, like venison, pheasants and wild duck. Others recommend them with braised meat or steak.)
German Rieslings are made in several ripeness levels, which are indicated on the label. The most important styles for our purposes include: Kabinett-–light, delicate, refreshing wines from ripe grapes with a touch of sweetness; Spätlese–-fuller, more flavorful wines, characterized by high acidity and light sweetness, from grapes picked at least a week after normal ripeness; and Auslese–fuller, riper wines with significant sweetness, made from ripe and overripe grape clusters.
The Kabinetts favor subtly flavored, delicate dishes with light sauces. The Spätlese cut the heat of spicy foods and are also good with dishes with some sweetness. The Ausleses demand aggressively flavored dishes, including sweet-and-sour and orange-flavored sauces that benefit from wines with more residual sugar.
New York, Washington, Oregon, parts of California, Austria, Australia and New Zealand also produce very good Rieslings. This varietal has been regaining popularity as people learn how food friendly it is.
MORE GOOD OPTIONS
There are some other fine choices. Albariño is the floral, citrusy, sometimes minerally, usually dry white wine that the Spanish drink with all fish and seafood; you might try it with the same. Sauvignon Blanc has herbal elements that pair well with ginger and distinctive herbs like cilantro, aka Chinese parsley. It also complements fried appetizers and seafood well. Tangy, racy New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs come to mind first. Grüner Veltliner, Austria’s dry, high-acid white wine, can also be herbal, slightly vegetal, spicy or fruity, with mineral undertones. It’s appropriate with vegetable or shellfish dishes. Off-dry (slightly sweet) Chenin Blancs match well with moderately spicy Chinese food. Pinot Bianco is the Italian version of Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Grigio is the lighter Italian version of Pinot Gris. White Burgundies are elegant and complement elegant dishes. And then there’s Viognier, which the Wall Street Journal describes well: “At its best, Viognier can have the cleanliness of Riesling, the juiciness of Sauvignon Blanc and the orange-blossom charm of Muscat. It tends to taste of peaches, apricots and mango, and sometimes has a bit of weight.”
Rosé is another food friendly wine that takes to Chinese food. Jeff Morgan, author of Rosé and co-owner of SoloRosa, a rosé-only winery, writes, “Rosé is blessed with a fruit-driven, bright-edged core that blends well with the fiery, ripe fruit found in chiles. Refreshingly chilled, dry, pintk wine also cools down the palate.” He recommends it with many dishes, but especially with Szechuan cuisine. If you are a red-wine lover, I recommend Pinot Noir with Chinese duck and meat dishes. Some enjoy Beaujolais, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Côtes-du-Rhône, Shiraz or Syrah, inexpensive red Bordeaux and Barbera.
I suggest you experiment and seek the guidance available at a good wine shop. Chances are, you’ll find many pairings that appeal to you. And if not, remember, there’s always Tsing Tao.
WINES PAIRED WITH REGIONS
Cantonese (some sweetness, not very spicy, sweet-and-sour, fermented black beans, soy sauce, salty): sparkling, Pinot Blanc (seafood), Riesling (seafood), Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer (roasted meats and poultry), rosé
Szechuan (spicy, hot-and-sour sauces, soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic): sparkling wine, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, Moscato d’Asti, rosé, Beaujolais
Hunan (similar to Szechuan): sparkling, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Beaujolais
Shanghai (slightly sweet): Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer
SOME FOOD AND WINE COMBINATIONS TO TRY
spring rolls and egg rolls: sparkling wine, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, rosé
salt-and-pepper shrimp, salt-and-pepper squid: sparkling wine
barbecued spare ribs: sparkling wine, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Albariño, rosé
noodles with sesame sauce: Gewürztraminer
soup dumplings: sparkling wine
dim sum: sparkling wine, Riesling
deep-fried dishes: sparkling wine
Singapore-style noodles: Sauvignon blanc, rosé
shellfish dishes: sparkling wine, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Albariño
hot pepper prawns: sparkling wine, Viognier
lobster Cantonese: white Burgundy
lobster with ginger and scallion sauce: white Burgundy
chicken with cashew nuts: Gewürztraminer
stir-fry chicken and vegetables: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer
kung pao chicken: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Albariño
General Tso’s chicken: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, rosé
vegetable lo mein: Sauvignon Blanc
minced squab with hoisin: Zinfandel
sesame chicken (Pinot Grigio, Riesling),
moo shu chicken: sparkling wine, Pinot Noir
chicken chow mein: sparkling wine
Peking duck: Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir
tea-smoked duck: Pinot Noir
roast duck: Pinot Noir
sweet and sour pork: Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, rosé
moo shu pork: Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, rosé
twice-cooked pork: sparkling wine, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Albariño, Pinot Noir
Chinese beef dish at tasting: Pinot Gris
orange-flavor beef: Riesling
PRODUCERS TO RELY ON
Sparkling wines: Lucien Albrecht, Bouvet-Ladubay, Domaine Chandon, Codorníu, Cristalino, Chateau Frank, Freixenet, Gramona, Gruet, Korbel, Albert Mann, Marquis de la Tour, Larry Mawby, Mionetto, Château Moncontour, Monmousseau, François Montand, Raventós I Blanc, René Muré, Saint-Hilaire, Segura Viudas, Valdo, Veuve Ambal, Veuve du Vernay, Willm, Yarden, Zardetto
Champagne: Aubry, Henri Billiot, Bollinger, Chartogne-Taillet, Gaston Chiquet, Egly-Ouriet, Nicolas Feuillatte, René Geoffroy, Pierre Gimonnet, Gosset, Alfred Gratien, Charles Heidsieck, Henriot, Jacquesson, Krug, Jean Lallement, Larmandier-Bernier, J. Lassalle, Lanson, Laurent-Perrier, Moët & Chandon, Dom Perignon, Pierre Peters, Philipponnat, Louis Roederer, Pol Roger, Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Vilmart & Cie
Alsace wines: Lucien Albrecht, Paul Blanck, Léon Boesch, Albert Boxler, Marcel Deiss, Helfrich, Hugel, Josmeyer, Marc Kreydenweiss, Kuentz-Bas, Albert Mann, René Muré, Ostertag, Stoeffler, Schofitt, Trimbach, Weinbach, Zind-Humbrecht
German Rieslings: Georg Breuer, J.J. Christoffel, Darting, Dönnhoff, J.u.H.A. Strub, Kerpen, Dr. Loosen, Meulenhof, Monchhof (Robert Eymael), Egon Müller, J.J. Prüm, Schaefer, Selbach-Oster, Two Princes, St.-Urbans-Hof, Von Schubert, Robert Weil, Zilliken
Other Rieslings: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Eroica, Chehalem, Covey Run, Dr. Konstantin Frank, Grosset, Heron Hill, Hogue, Lamoreaux Landing, Pacific Rim, Pikes, Poet’s Leap, Sheldrake Point, Swedish Hill, Villa Maria, Hermann J. Weimer