Pairing wines with Chinese food: It can be done
How do you pair a wine with Sichuan chicken (口水鸡) in peppercorn lava or sweet, saucy hongshao rou? Wine pairing with Chinese food is possible, but does require significant experience. Here’s a list of suggestions, courtesy of the experts: sommeliers Jean-Marc Nolant of Park Hyatt Shanghai and Philippe Huser of Napa Valley Wine Bar & Restaurant.
Rule 1: Avoid foods that require dipping in vinegar
For meals that include foods like xiaolongbao, hargow and potstickers, Jean-Marc Nolant recommends to “just pass on the wine.” According to Nolant, the acidity of vinegar can linger in your mouth and change your entire taste perception.
But dishes flavored with vinegar in the cooking process, say sweet and sour Zhejiang ribs, are more easily paired with wine since the vinegar is neutralized and caramelized with the sugar, explains Nolant. “A Malbec from Argentina, a typical New World type of flavor profile, perhaps with a plummy character and aroma of leather, dried tobacco, cedar and a bit of vanilla oak, would hold up [with this type of Chinese food].”
Rule 2: Make sure lighter flavored dishes are served first
In China, all your dishes are cooked and delivered to your table at the same time regardless of what “course” they belong to. Nolant recommends that three wines with distinct flavor profiles be served at a banquet style Chinese meal, or, at the very least, one red wine and one white wine. Wines have to be served from the lightest to strongest -- generally, that means white, then red -- for the structure and intensity of each to be fully understood, so dishes have to be served in that order as well.
“For example, if I give you a big Australian shiraz followed by a light pinot noir from Burgundy, chances are you won’t fully appreciate the Burgundy,” he explains. “That’s why it’s very important that the braised pork comes after the steamed garoupa.”
Rule 3: Likewise, start with your white wine and then move on to red
In turn, lighter flavored dishes suit lighter wines (usually easy-drinking whites) while stronger wines (generally fruity reds), go with more heavily flavored foods. Moderately spiced dishes, like those served at Guyi, should pair with a simple, entry-level wine. For example, a fruity but dry Riesling, says Nolant.
More suggestions: a half-dry German Riesling would pair well with smoked fish and a South African Pinotage goes well with smoked meat.
Hongshao rou? Try a Syrah. Cha siu, try a young pinot noir. For durian, a Chardonnay with a creamy, buttery character will pair well, while Kou Shui Ji (口水鸡) calls for a crisp white from Alsace. Ultra-sweet Shanghainese classics like red dates or lotus stuffed with glutinous rice require a very fruitful wine with aromatic fruit and flowers in the bouquet.
The spicier the dish, the less complex and less dry your wine should be. “If it gets too spicy, then wine, beer and water all taste the same. Don’t waste a complex wine on a numbed palate,” Nolant adds.
Rule 4: Chinese food with Chinese wines? Yes, but select well
If you venture into Chinese wine, “Try a good Chinese wine like a Grace Vineyard Chardonnay -- it’s high acidity, good value for money, very drinkable -- it would pair quite well with Chinese style steamed turbot,” says Huser.
“I’ve never seen a vine on the Great Wall,” Nolant comments considering the famous Great Wall wine brand. “You have to remember that 60 percent of wines imported into China are cheap bulk wines, from South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Spain. They arrive and are bottled as Chinese wine.” Despite Great Wall, Dynasty (“at least they tell you it’s 'nasty,'” says Nolant) and Changyu, there are some notably good Chinese wineries -- Grace Vineyard in Shanxi and Silver Heights in Ningxia.
Rule 5: Choose your wine based on the preparation rather than the ingredients
When it comes to Chinese food, the red wine with meat and white wine with seafood doesn’t apply. “The method of cooking and flavorings determines 70-80 percent of the taste of a dish,” says Nolant, “so if you have a fish in a soy-based sauce, then consider a red wine,” recommends Huser.
Cantonese cuisine has more delicate flavors. So when you have dim sum, Huser says, you can try an aged Burgundy, which has few tannins, or alternatively, white wine.
Rule 6: Make sure your Chinese food and wine night is feasible
According to Huser, “Many Chinese restaurants do their wine lists according to what the supplier has. It’s usually big names and a very limited selection. They may not know to store wine out of the sun, or serve the white wine chilled. The glassware can be a problem too.” Be prepared to bring your own bottle in such cases. (If you do BYOB, check out our guide to Shanghai corkage fees.)
Also think about the occasion. Are you trying to impress an important Chinese client? Then choosing a wine with status may be more essential than making a great pairing. “In the high-end Chinese restaurants, there will be wine lists offering big Latour and Bordeaux. Maybe the people who order these love wine, or maybe it’s for status,” says Huser as 'face' is always something important to consider. “But when you’re talking about truly legendary wines and wine lovers, it’s time to forget about the food.”
Park Hyatt Shanghai (in the Shanghai World Financial Center)
79-93/F, 100 Century Avenue
+86 21 6888 1234,
Napa Wine Bar & Kitchen
57 Jiangyin Lu, near Huangpi Bei Lu
+86 21 6318 0057