The Majesty of Chinese Cuisine for Wine Lovers
China’s cuisine, alongside that of France, stands as one of the most diverse, regionally varied, expressive, and inventive in the world. Move beyond your corner Chinese restaurant and either find a gourmet Chinese food eatery or learn to cook a Chinese feast!
The Chinese define eight major regional cuisines within the rubric we usually generically refer to as “Chinese food,” and each meal offers the opportunity to taste a plethora of dishes emphasizing not only sweet, sour, salty, and spicy, but also umami and textural variety; crunchy, firm, soft, and slippery come to mind.
China now produces western style wines, but only recently, and the traditional accompaniment to feasts and banquets are “baijiu,” a strong fermented rice liquor, and beer, “pijiu” (wine is “putaojiu”). Yet, the huge potential for matching the gustatory multiplicity of China with vinous array of western fine wine boggles the mind.
Eight Major Cuisines of China
Each of the eight major cuisines has its own nuance and emphasis. They are the culinary styles of Anhui, Guangdong (Canton), Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan and Zhejiang. In addition, the capital of Beijing offers inventions such as “Beijing kaoya,” or roast duck.
Cantonese Reigns Supreme in the West
Most Chinese restaurants in the West are heavily oriented towards Cantonese cuisine, which tends towards sweeter and lighter preparations featuring fresh seafood, pork, and chicken, with few herbs or spices, as well as the famous petit delicacies known as dim sum.
Contrast that with the inherently spicy food of Sichuan, which emphasizes hot chilis, garlic, and numbing “Szechuan pepper,” with many hearty soy-sauce sauces, and you can see the range of Chinese cuisine.
How do we pair wine with such mutitudinal Chinese gastronomy? What wine goes with General Tso chicken?
How to Pair Wine with Chinese Gastronomy
The Usual Pairings: Wine and Chinese Food
The pat answer from many experts is Riesling on the white side and either light Pinot Noir or Gamay Noir (think, Beaujolais) on the red side. One Spanish wine expert says: “This scenario forces us to seek a wine that can transversely accompany all these recipes, containing a low alcohol level to balance spicy dishes, light-bodied to not overshadow vegetables and fish, intensity in flavor to stand against more robust dishes, and high acidity to face both fried foods and meats. It’s a complex scenario where perhaps only Riesling meets all the requirements.”
Take Wine and Chinese Food Up a Notch
That’s an acceptable answer, but it misses the point of experiencing a diversity of flavors, aromas, sensations (spicy, numbing, crackly, for example) and textures inherent in Chinese culinary philosophy. One effective answer if one had to choose just one wine would be a Rosé, not too light, and probably dry or off-dry. Provence Rosé wines or possibly a Tempranillo-based one from Spain fit the bill.
The great point, however, is that Chinese food opens the door to trying vastly different wines to see how they pair with different foods. For Beijing roast duck, for example, wrapped in flour pancakes, dabbed with dark brown hoisin sauce, and sprinkled with sliced Chinese shallots, why not think about a top-notch Australian Shiraz or an aged Bordeaux red blend?
Multiple Chinese Dishes, Multiple Wines
Roast duck is usually a one-dish meal, but the typical Chinese feast will place multiple dishes on the table at once, encouraging conviviality. Everyone tries the multiple preparations, which will each have distinctive flavors and textures.
Aromatic Riesling, as mentioned, provides one solution to this diversity of flavors. As a dry white wine, Riesling will compliment light sauces, chicken, and seafood in the styles of Canton or Jiangsu; open a semi-dry or semi-sweet Riesling to accompany some of the spicier alternatives from Hunan or Sichuan.
Wine Pairing: Think Outside of the Box
Chinese food, too, provides an opportunity to think outside the box:
A completely dry Fino sherry or a “grand cru” sparkling Cava, such as Cava de Paraje Calificado, will combine with a multitude of flavors. The aromas of brioche next to floral and yellow apple notes will perfect Chinese coastal cuisine. Sparkling wines, even Champagne, will as well provide that textural diversity the Chinese so appreciate in dining.
A Ripasso wine from Italy, with fruitiness defined within a certain earthy spice, and plenty of tertiary flavors, would pair well with barbequed Char Siu pork or chicken in brown sauces, such as Kong Pao. Regarding Char Siu, wine expert Fiona Beckett’s Chinese friends “went for a Saint-Estèphe” from Bordeaux, suggesting Château Capbern and the superb but often overlooked Château Meyney “to balance the rich, smoky flavours of the pork.” Not a bad idea either.
Wine & Chinese Food: An Opportunity to Explore Different Wines
Matching Chinese food with wine, therefore, present an opportunity for invention and exploration. This experience can be enhanced by taking a wine class. Just as there will be multiple dishes, think multiple wines in multiple styles. One cuisine left of the list of the “eight majors” is Mongolian, which often features mutton and hot pots. Think of uncorking a premium Carmenere from Chile, where spice compliments spice, or for lamb, a chewier Oregon Pinot Noir with a bit of age.
If it’s in your budget, an Echezeaux from DRC might go well. One critic describes “spicier and slightly toastier aromas of red currant, pomegranate, sandalwood and an interesting hint of incense” that would add new heights to Mongolian lamb.
Some Suggested Wine and Chinese Food Pairings
Here’s a few other suggested pairings of wine with particular Chinese culinary creations.
• Shrimp Dumplings: 100% Chardonnay as a still wine or in sparkling form, like a Blanc de Blancs Champagne; also iced Fino Sherry
• Spring Rolls: Gruner Veltliner, Picpoul de Pinet
• Potstickers: Off-dry Riesling, Chilled Moscato d’Asti, a lighter New World Pinot Noir
Chow Mein and Fried Rice:
• Riesling: With or without some residual sugar
• English Sparkling Wine
Crispy Duck and Pancakes:
• Fruity Pinot Noir: From Oregon, the Sonoma coast, or a cru Beaujolais
• Spätlese Riesling: an alternative if you desire white wine
Sweet and Sour Dishes (think Cantonese):
• Aromatic White Blends: Try some New Zealand blends but shy away from pure Sauvignon Blanc
• Aromatic Varieties: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Torrontés, Viognier
Sichuan-Style Spicy Dishes:
• Cold Sparkling Wines: Prosecco, Asti, Lambrusco, Brut Champagne, Reserva Cava (but remember the bubbles can enhance the sensation of heat and spiciness)
• Aromatic Whites: Auslese Riesling, lighter Sauternes or Barsac styles
• Light-Hearted Reds: Gamay, Pinot Noir
• Off-Dry Riesling: a great combination with spicy Asian cuisine in general
In the end, while the traditional go-to wine pairings like Riesling or light Pinot Noir offer a solid foundation when you tackle what wine to pair with Chinese food, the mind-boggling diversity of Chinese dishes encourages exploration and experimentation.
Use an eclectic range of wines to create a sensorial journey celebrating the vibrant flavors in every sip and chopstick conveyed bite. If you embrace the journey of discovering these new wine and food pairings, the results will be an enhanced experience of Chinese gastronomy.