The perfect wine matches for Chinese food styles

By Chinese wine expert Edward Ragg

By Edward Ragg
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Cantonese Roast Duck

Cantonese Roast Duck [©Edward Ragg in Beijing]

Great Wall of China
Beijing Dumplings

 

As most of us know, Asian food is now so well intregrated into Australian culture and cuisine that chilli and other spices are almost a fundamental part of 'modern Australian' cooking.

VisitVineyards.com has enlisted the help of Chinese wine consultants Edward Ragg and Fongyee Walker from Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting in Beijing to give us an insight into matching great Chinese food with local Australian wines. Fear mistakes no more! And wien exporters, take note.

2008 was a big year for China, hosting the 2008 Olympics after some seven years of preparation, increased international scrutiny and some occasional soul-searching offset by the vigour, determination and sheer energy of the Chinese people. During that time, the wine market in mainland China grew steadily, with increasingly interesting wines entering the country; not least from Australia, which remains only second to France in the import market. Hong Kong may be the critical hub and a market unto itself, but China is growing, albeit gradually.

Now we're into 2010, and China is starting to take off in its own right.

Little has been written, however, on the relationship between international wines and what is surely closest to the Chinese people’s hearts: food. Visiting winemakers are all agreed their wines must be paired with Chinese cuisine in order to be appreciated.

Foreign wine writers, unfamiliar with China’s many regional culinary offerings, are understandably cautious about offering food-and-wine matching advice. But many are also wary of the simplistic ‘Eat Asia, Drink Alsace’ mantra, as are some Alsatian wine-makers, in fact. On the Chinese side, only a minority of gourmets can combine extensive knowledge of Chinese cooking with solid appreciation for international wines. After all, the import wine market is barely fifteen years old.

But it’s not all doom and gloom; and Australia’s wines are, in some respects, better placed to match China’s great cuisines than many wines from the northern hemisphere.

Ripeness of fruit, impeccable wine-making and the broad canvas of Australia’s own regional diversity offer abundant opportunities for sensitive food-and-wine matching. But, given the vastness of China itself and its baffling culinary traditions, where can you get started?

There are at least eight major schools of Chinese cooking. However, four groups dominate the culinary heritage: Lu (Shandong), Yue (Cantonese), Chuan (Sichuan) and Huaiyang (Jiangsu). In what follows we describe one or more classic dishes from each tradition with several suggestions for bench-mark Australian wines that should provide great matches to the dishes on offer. In each case we provide some rationale for why we think each wine suits each dish. But, don’t forget, experimentation is critical!

 

Lu (Shandong)

Shandong cooking is famed for its fresh flavours and considerable use of fish. With the coastal cities of Yantai and Qingdao on hand, Shandong has plentiful seafood and also river fish at its disposal. This relatively rich cuisine utilizes many cooking techniques, but frying in all forms and braising are common.

One Shandong classic is ‘sweet and sour’ Mandarin fish (also known as ‘squirrel fish’) which pairs extremely well with oaked chardonnays from ‘cooler-climate’ regions: try Margaret River, Adelaide Hills or Tasmania.

These chardonnays’ melon and light pineapple fruit complement the ‘fruity’ sauce to this dish with the oak providing a savoury contrast. Critically, these types of chardonnay are not that acidic and are relatively full-bodied. A light-bodied, high acid wine would wreck the balance between acidity and sweetness in this dish.

Lu cooking also influenced Imperial Cuisine. So, if you’re off to Beijing, you’ll find all sorts of Aussie wines can match Beijing dishes. Even the city’s famous jiaozi (dumplings with all manner of fillings), although often dipped in vinegar, will work with most forms of Aussie oaked chardonnay, South Australian and Victorian viogniers and Victorian pinot noirs.

For Beijing roast duck, most styles of Aussie shiraz pair brilliantly, whilst the accoutrements served with duck in Beijing – minced garlic, tianmianjang (a soy-based dark sauce which is often confused with hoisin but is much more savoury), radish etc – can be hard on most light-bodied wines.

 

Yue (Guangzhou/Cantonese)

Famously, the Cantonese eat just about anything that moves. The only thing they struggle to ingest, apparently, is lamb (or mutton) which is generally consumed in north or north-western China.

Yue cuisine has some similarities with Shandong cooking, combining fresh flavours, seafood and similar cooking techniques; although cooking ‘in salt’ and extensive use of rice wine are widespread. Cantonese food would also be unimaginable without the holy trinity of garlic, green onion and ginger.

Cantonese roast meats (its pigeons, ducks, pork and chicken especially) will pair superbly with most forms of Australian shiraz: everything from the intensity of Barossa to cooler-climate Limestone Coast or Margaret River examples. Also, try Western Australian or Coonawarra cabernet blends.

For yum cha or dim-sum you do need to be a little more careful. Take xia jiao (steamed prawn dumplings), for example. There is no dipping sauce with this delicate dish, so wine takes over. For a bold match, try Victorian pinot noirs such as those from Yarra Valley, Geelong or Mornington Peninsula – the lighter in style the better though. Pinot’s cherry and raspberry fruit, low tannins and refreshing high acidity make an ideal match for the thin rice-based wrappers and slightly juicy prawns. Heavier reds would basically overpower the fish here and their higher tannins destroy mouth-feel.

Yue cooking also works with lighter-weight chardonnays and dry or off-dry riesling-based wines.

Generally speaking, it’s worth avoiding very aromatic varieties like gewurztraminer and muscat because their intensely perfumed noses can be over-powering for some Cantonese dishes. Old Hunter semillons, by contrast, would be sublime with this dish.

In brief, Cantonese cooking is especially wine-friendly. Just watch out for green peppers as these are pretty hard to match with most wines.

 

Chuan (Sichuan)

Sichuan cooking is renowned for its intensity and pungency. Expect raw or dried chilis, lots of garlic and the numbing hua jiao (prickly ash Sichuan ‘peppercorns’). Unfortunately, hua jiao is now being abused by faddish fusion cooks all around the world. But Sichuan chefs, and the better fusion practitioners, balance these strong flavors with sugar or by adding stir-fried vegetables that are crunchy and ‘sweet’ to the taste. However, garlic’s and chili’s innate high acidity, along with the numbing, juniper-like Sichuan ‘pepper’, are all tough on wine.

One classic is bang bang ji: a cold salad of shredded chicken, cucumber and green onions, interlaced with a spicy sesame-based sauce. Usually, whites with some residual sugar would work here, but Australia doesn’t produce many of these, apart from in late harvest or botrytized cases. But it’s worth trying dry Rieslings, classics from the Clare or Eden Valleys, with this dish. These wines’ intense lime fruit, sometimes with petrol and mineral aromas, provide an excellent foil to this spicy dish; and Riesling’s naturally high acidity cuts through the sesame sauce beautifully.

With another Sichuan classic like hui guo rou (twice cooked pork), crisp pork belly, garlic, green chili and hua jiao all present similar challenges. Try robust Barossa Shirazes or Old Vine Grenaches from McLaren Vale or a robust GSM blend. These fruit-driven wines provide the illusion of ‘sweetness’ and can thus cope with the pronounced acidity and strong flavours in this dish. However, watch out for excessive alcohol and exorbitant tannin because these can intensify perception of spice.

Surprisingly, Pinot Noir, although famously acidic, seems to modify the acidity in Sichuan cooking. We didn’t believe this until we tried for ourselves! So, classic Pinots from Victoria or Tasmania should work well here. Sparkling Shiraz represents another contender because the wine-making techniques followed tend to minimize tannins and provide some important sweetness from dosage. So you get all that fruit, some tantalizing sparkle and a bit of sugar to balance the acidic, spicy elements to this dish.

 

Huaiyang (Jiangsu)

Jiangsu cuisine takes many forms, but you cannot fail to notice the delicacy of its dishes with their striking shapes – Huai food is well-known for beautiful cutting techniques – and refreshing flavours. Shi zi tou or ‘lion’s head casserole’ is immediately appealing: its floating pork mince resembling the heads of mythological Chinese lions, as seen everywhere from The Forbidden City to outside restaurants themselves!

The pork is simmered in a delicate stock with green vegetables and ginger and the final dish is sometimes bedecked with crab roe. Aussie sparklers and wines rich in Pinot Noir would work well here, particularly those from Tasmania. The high acidity cuts through the pork mince balls and the mousse complements the lightly salty stock and the fresh, distinctive crab roe. Young or aged Hunter Semillons would, again, make beautiful partners to this dish as well as suiting many Huaiyang tofu (dofu) dishes as well.

 

 

Regions

  • China - all (CH)

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