Ch'ng Poh Tiong September 2011 column

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  • Friday 19 August 2011

Not by softened tannins alone will Chinese food find affinity with red wine

Decanter Columnists

As an addendum to Fiona Beckett's article ‘Chopsticks & Claret’ (Decanter, July 2011 issue), the overwhelming consideration when matching red wine with Chinese food is the tannins.

Whether Cantonese roast goose, Hakka salt-baked chicken, Chaozhou-braised eight-treasure vegetables, Fujian-braised belly pork (sandwiched in a steamed bun), Sichuan double-cooked pork, Shandong deep-fried minced pork balls or Xinjiang roast lamb, they all share one common characteristic. Those Chinese classics do not like young, fierce, raging tannins.

Serving, say, Haut-Brion 2008 (a great wine it may be) with those otherwise delicious dishes would result in a head-on collision. Neither food nor wine would survive the impact.

Actually, it’s not just Chinese dishes that would find such infant wine hard going – even confit de canard, poulet de bresse and agneau de l’Aveyron would not like to spend the night with a frisky young red.

Before red wine can partner (let alone, marry) food, the tannins need to be resolved and evolved. Smoothness is a texture desired not for itself but because it signals that the wine is ready.

If, on the other hand, the tannins are still edgy and sticking out all over the place, the exuberant structure does nothing for food. Nor, for that matter, the drinker.

When tasting a wine, it’s well and good to observe that ‘the ripe and rich tannins of this young 2010 mouton (one of the greatest wines of the newly released vintage) are truly impressive for ageing into the future’, but who, in his right mind, would cry: ‘Pour me another glass because I need to relive the puckering sensation of those bazooka tannins!’ Then again, you might be a masochist.

Smoothness is a desirable character not just in wine: whisky, Cognac and Armagnac producers like their spirits smoothened by the caressing hands of time. Without, of course, sacrificing the richness of their distinct flavours.

The state of tannins being the crucial factor in pairing red wine with food, all things being equal, Pinot Noir has a natural advantage with Chinese cuisine – at least those dishes that call for a red wine.

The reason for Pinot’s pole position is because the skin of the variety is one of the thinnest. Accordingly, the ratio of tannins to juice is lower than, say, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, merlot, Syrah or Tempranillo.

This does not mean that only red Burgundy will pair with Chinese food, only that it possesses an advantage bestowed by the grape’s DNA. Even Beaujolais, and any of the region’s 10 crus, can be very enjoyable with Chinese cuisine when the wine has matured.

While Pinot Noir is, indeed, very versatile, wines from Bordeaux, Barolo, Chianti, Rioja, Côte-Rôtie or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Australian Shiraz, will also pair seamlessly. You just need to ensure the wine, its fruit and structure (including of tannins and acidity), are mature, evolved and round.

Not by softened tannins alone will Chinese food find affinity with a red wine though. The cuisine needs more than a soft, caressing mouthfeel. The fruit needs to be nuanced, layered and, preferably, complex too.

In a sense, Chinese cuisine is more demanding because most dishes are cooked or seasoned with soya sauce, a fermented product with a taste that is stronger than salt.

The reason an aged red does the job admirably is because the finest are always multi-dimensional. They are also almost always anointed with that irresistible perfume of sandalwood (from which Chinese incense sticks are made).

What Chinese cuisine (any food for that matter) dislikes most are those inhumanely extracted, overly oaked, black, tannic reds. Chinese dishes would be bludgeoned senseless by the likes of Pavie and La Couspaude.

At one time, these dark ‘juices’ (you can’t really call them wine) were confined mostly to St-Emilion. unfortunately, like the flu, the virus has spread to the médoc, Argentina – even India. No place on earth seems safe from these hellish wines.

One of the greatest Chinese delicacies is sea cucumber. The best way to prepare this rubbery creature is to braise it in a thickened superior stock that may include chicken, pork bones, Chinese ham and dried scallops.

In January 2011, I was in Beijing and Shanghai to help pair Chinese cuisine with Château margaux. In both cities, the 20 Chinese journalists’ overwhelming favourite matches with braised sea cucumber were margaux 1989 (in Beijing) and Pavilion Rouge du margaux 1990 (in Shanghai).

Sea cucumber happens to be the only seafood that is better with red rather than white wine. The reason is that up to 95% of its taste comes from the sauce. Although sea cucumber is a bit smokey, it does not taste fishy or iodiney, in which case a white, not a red, would pair better.

The other reason Château margaux’s grand vin and second wine went so very well with the Chinese delicacy was because their tannins, like the dish itself, were smooth as silk

Panel tastings

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