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With the Beijing Olympics, which runs from 8-24 August, dominating our sporting summer it’s bound to focus our attention on all things Chinese, not least the country’s sophisticated and subtle cuisine.
Few people realise just how varied that is. China after all covers a vast geographical region and the caricature of its dishes as being dominated by sweet and sour flavours and stir fries couldn’t be wider of the mark. In the north where the Olympics are taking place Mongolian barbecue dishes are popular for example, a total contrast to the elegant subtle dishes of Canton to the south, a region credited with the country’s most refined and sophisticated cuisine.
The challenge with Chinese as with other oriental food is to find a wine that can cope with a variety of dishes that are brought to the table at the same time and it is here that the pure unoaked white wines from Alsace with their own exotic flavours really come into their own. Alsace wines are easy to understand because, unlike many French wines, they’re named after the grape variety they’re made from. The best known varieties are smooth, dry Pinot Blanc (a great alternative for Chardonnay lovers); elegant, crisp Riesling; Pinot Gris (a musky, sensual relative of Pinot Grigio); and one of the world’s most spectacular grape varieties exotic, lychee-scented Gewurztraminer.
It’s the latter you should turn to for the dish that the off-duty Olympic athletes will be most likely tucking into: Beijing duck – or, as it’s more commonly known, Peking duck. Duck is wonderful with Gewurztraminer which provides an exotic counterpoint to the irresistible crisp, lacquered meat.
In fact Gewurz, as it’s familiarly known, would be the ideal pairing for many of the dishes of the north where Beijing is situated. Traditionally beset by freezing winters, the food there is robust, featuring dishes such as braises and hotpots – just the kind of rich spicy dishes that benefit from a refreshing unoaked white rather than a full-bodied tannic red.
Of course like any capital city, and a former home to the imperial court, Beijing doesn’t just offer the food of its own region but attracts chefs from all over the country. The traditional accompaniment to a meal might have been tea but today’s sophisticated young Chinese are looking to enjoy fine wines, just the same way as they are embracing Western fashion, music and culture.
Many visitors to Beijing this summer are bound to visit the snack sellers for tasty morsels such as fried pancakes and steamed buns, the sort of snacks we might enjoy while we’re glued to the athletics. A great accompaniment would be a glass of sparkling Crémant d’Alsace or crisp Pinot Blanc, also an excellent match for seafood-based Chinese dishes such as prawn spring rolls or scallops. If you’re serving a stir fry with slightly bolder flavours, or a classic Chinese style steamed fish with spring onions, ginger and garlic, turn to Alsace Riesling with its piercingly pure and intense fruit, a perfect counterpoint.
For the spicy dishes of Szechuan, generously seasoned with Szechuan pepper and chilli, one need look no further than Alsace Pinot Gris with its exotic musky notes and touch of sweetness, a perfect wine for spicy food. And take your pick from Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer for Chinese style ribs and difficult-to-match black bean sauces. They’ll both come sailing through. All these wines are widely available in supermarkets.
If all the focus on China tempts you out to a Chinese restaurant, look out too for Alsace’s sumptuously sweet wines, labelled Vendanges Tardives (late picked) or Sélection de Grains Nobles, which you can also pair very successfully with spicier Chinese dishes as well as with typical Chinese beancurd-based desserts. It’s also worth searching online, among specialist independent wine merchants, for the rarer and more special ‘Grand Cru’ wines which have an intense purity of flavour and crisp acidity that stand up brilliantly to the hot, sweet and sour tastes of many Chinese dishes.
In short, just remember that the hotter the dish the more aromatic a white wine you need to balance it. Lighter dishes pair best with crisper, drier whites such as Pinot Blanc and Riesling; spicier ones with more intensely flavoured whites that have a touch more sweetness such as Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. Whether you’re having a quiet night in watching the Olympics with a takeaway or hosting a full-blown Chinese feast for friends, drink Alsace wines this summer.
For more information visit www.alsacewine.com