Americans must gain a far greater understanding of Chinese cuisine and culture before they can make inroads into its wine market, a conference heard yesterday.

Speaking at the Taste3 conference at the Copia centre in Napa, California, food writer Olivia Wu said that despite the 150-year history of Chinese cuisine on the west coast, Americans still barely understood it.

‘We know Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai and other eastern cuisines but Chinese is still relatively unknown,’ she said.

American wine producers enthusiastically promote their wines in the ‘chaotic and unpredictable’ Chinese market, ‘but they ignore Chinese culture and cuisine,’ she said.

Wu, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and spent most of last year in Shanghai, also said Cabernet Sauvignon, although the worst possible match for Chinese food, was the ‘status grape’ in China, and the most planted in the domestic industry.

The Chinese use no dairy, and do little roasting and baking. There are none of the sauces, nor the caramelized styles of roasts, that play such a major part in French cuisine and which have evolved along with its wines.

Cabernet ‘is just so wrong,’ she said, although it is drunk at official occasions and private banquets because it is the most revered of the noble varieties. ‘State officials will make sure they get the best wines, whether they like them or not,’ she said.

This, Wu says, is the reason for the much-mocked Chinese custom of mixing fine wines – and the whisky and brandy which they import in huge quantities – with carbonated drinks like 7-Up.

‘If once you drink brandy and 7-Up you will understand. It is a combination that works all the way through the meal.’

The varieties that work best are the Riesling in all its forms, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, she said. The ‘slightly maderized’ styles of Mediterranean whites also work, and some dishes could be matched with Pinot Noir.

She cited San Francisco’s Slanted Door, a Vietnamese/Chinese restaurant, as having one of the best wine lists for Chinese cuisine. It has a wealth of aromatic whites including dozens of Rieslings and five or six Gruner Veltliners.

She stressed that China’s 1.5bn population and its ‘thriving, pounding’ eating culture, was already embracing wine as a drink of choice. ‘In Shanghai, every other day there is a restaurant featuring a wine region.’

Written by Adam Lechmere in Napa