Wine with Chinese food: Five styles to consider
- Riesling (dry, off-dry)
- Chardonnay sparkling wines
- Pinot Noir
Chinese New Year’s eve: The countdown, the feast
It’s that time of the year again in China. The streets are lit with red lanterns, windows are decorated with red paper-cut patterns and the letter ‘福 (fortune)’ on every door – usually pasted upside down, as ‘倒 (upside down)’ shares the pronunciation of ‘到 (arrives)’.
You know New Year is around the corner when the online retailers start to warn their customers that the couriers are about to take a break so ‘shop now but it won’t get delivered any time soon!’ Every household is busy stocking up on ‘Nian Huo 年货’ (the ‘spring festival stash’), which covers everything families need to indulge themselves during the week-long break; bags of rice, tons of greens, meat and fish, all sorts of snacks, cases of baijiu (the white liquor), beer and increasingly, wine.
The feast on the eve of the Lunar New Year, just like Christmas eve, is arguably one of the most important Chinese family occasions of the year.
After a year of hard work, the youngsters rush home – even if they have to travel thousands of miles – so they can make it to this special dinner. Parents meanwhile are busy cooking in the kitchen, while grandparents slip red envelopes into their grandkids’ pockets behind the backs of their strict parents.
When the food is ready, be it cold salads, red-braised meat, roast duck, steamed fish, hot soup, fried vegetables, or indeed dumplings, everything is served together and no one is supposed to touch the food until everybody sits down and a glass has been raised.
With the TV turned on to show the good old Spring Festival Gala, family members chat for hours over the abundance of food and drinks, doing rounds of ‘Ganbei (bottom-up)’ until firecrackers light up the midnight sky. Such is my memory of Chinese New Year’s eve.
Nowadays, this particular family dinner is much less about treating your family to the most sumptuous feast of the year – they can afford perfectly good food themselves and don’t need to wait for a special occasion anymore. It is, at least for me, about sharing a tradition and cultural moment that transcends generations, and basking in the joyous reassurance that you are loved and cared about.
Pairing ideas for a full-on feast
If you are after a full-on, authentic Chinese New Year feast experience this year, forget about the one-wine-to-each-dish pairing routine, as dishes of diverse ingredients and clashing flavours are bound to be served together.
What you need is an all-rounder that works with the whole feast. Sparkling wines, namely Champagne, Cava, English bubbles and well-chilled Prosecco, are infallible choices with their palate-cleansing nature. If the dishes are red meat-heavy or with a strong seasoning, you can even try a red fizz such as a frothy Lambrusco.
Aromatic whites with a touch of residual sugar (such as Kabinett Riesling and Gewürztraminer) tend to work in synergy with steamed fish and dishes with strong scents of spices. The fragrance and friendly sweetness make Moscato Asti a welcomed partner to Hot Pot and Sichuan-style spicy dishes among young drinkers in China.
Fruit-forward, ripe and supple red wines such as a New World Pinot Noir, Barbera, Rioja Joven or Southern Italian reds such as Nerello Mascalese also have a place on the table, especially when your dishes are heavy on red-braised seasoning (which usually involves soy sauce and sugar).
I would avoid muscular reds with robust tannin when pairing with a complex feast. Austere acidity also tends to ruin the sweet-and-sour dishes entirely.
Pairing Chinese food and wine – common takeaways
Chinese takeaways provide a simpler, westernised approach to the vast possibilities of the country’s eight great regional cuisines (‘八大菜系’).
You’ll find familiar options and popular single dishes available almost everywhere, and so they also pose fewer difficulties when thinking about wine pairing.
Here are some suggestions for pairing wine with Chinese food commonly found in the UK and US.
Wine with Dim sum
Among the eight great Chinese regional cuisines, Cantonese food is arguably the most widely found in western countries.
Dim Sum covers a wide range of small dishes, including steamed dumplings, spring rolls and soya-seasoned meats.
The relatively mild flavours open up plenty of options to wine pairing.
‘Instead of using condiments to enhance the flavours, [the] natural savoury taste lends itself to be paired with wines,’ said Guo Ying.
‘The best shrimp dumplings must have smooth and translucent skin with a springy texture, and you can taste the freshness of the shrimp. Pork meat is added to enhance the flavours,’ said Guo Ying.
Try a still or sparkling made with 100% Chardonnay to pair with this fresh and light dish, or with other Dim Sum dishes of similar texture, such as Shumai.
Food and wine expert Fiona Beckett suggested ‘sparkling wine, preferably blanc de blancs Champagne, or a chilled fino Sherry’ in a previous article for Decanter.com.
Similarly, spring rolls with crispy skin and mild vegetable fillings could benefit from a fresh and clean white. A youthful Gruner Veltliner or green apple-tinged Picpoul de Pinet wine would fit the bill perfectly.
The same rule applies to potstickers – pan-fried dumplings.
For Cha Siu Bao (steamed Barbecued pork bun), the salty-sweet, rich fillings would pair nicely with a refreshing off-dry Riesling or a chilled Moscato d’Asti.
A ripe, fruit-forward New World Pinot Noir could also do the trick with Cha Siu (braised pork bellies), though tannins may not work very well with the doughy texture of the bun.
When pairing wine with dumplings in general, heavy, tannic reds should be avoided, because they are likely to overpower these lightly flavoured dishes.
Wine with chow mein (fried noodles) and fried rice
These hearty dishes can be served as a whole meal on their own: carbohydrates, proteins and vegetables – everything you need is packed in one plate.
Fresh ingredients are tossed skilfully in giant woks over blazing flames, with plenty of oil, soy sauce, oyster sauce, spices and (optional) spring onions added.
These greasy dishes, though satisfying, cry for acidity to refresh your palate.
A Riesling with razor-sharp acidity, with or without residual sugar, remains the top choice, although we wouldn’t say no to a linear English sparkling wine.
Wine with crispy duck and pancakes
This beloved duck dish bears some resemblances to the famous Peking duck, although it’s generally deep fried rather than roasted.
As many people know, crispy duck is delicious when served with hoisin sauce, shredded cucumber and spring onion, wrapped in thin pancakes.
Beckett recommended ‘a good fruity Pinot Noir from Oregon or the Sonoma coast, or a cru Beaujolais’ for this dry and crunchy duck dish.
Canadian-Chinese MW Jennifer Docherty believes that Spätlese Riesling is a better partner to Peking duck, as the dish is greasy and rich whereas Pinot Noir is ‘quite linear’.
Plus, a touch of residual sugar goes well with the hoisin sauce, she said.
Wine with sweet and sour dishes
General Tso’s Chicken has nothing to do with the real General Tso, and orange chicken hardly resembles its ‘origin’ – tangerine chicken of Hunan province.
That said, there’s nothing stopping us from enjoying these richly sweet and sour dishes.
Beckett suggested pairing anglicised sweet and sour dishes with ‘aromatic white blends such as Hugel’s Gentil or TWR’s Toru from Marlborough, New Zealand’.
Aromatic varieties such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Torrontes with their distinctive characters (and a touch of sweetness in some cases) should work well with sesame chicken.
Residual sugar levels are a more important consideration when pairing wines with spicier dishes, such as General Tso’s Chicken.
Wine with Sichuan-style spices
A cold sparkling wine can do wonders to ease the burn of Sichuan-style spices – be it Prosecco, Asti, Lambrusco or Brut Champagne.
Again, aromatic white wines with Chinese food can work well when paired with dishes that have complex aromas from various spices.
You could go for sweetness, too. An Auslese Riesling or even a lighter style of Sauternes or Barsac can work hand-in-hand with the spicy sensation.
Beckett recommended ‘a bold off-dry rosé (a pale Provençal pink doesn’t quite cut the mustard) or off-dry Riesling such as Jeffrey Grosset’s Alea’.
Light-hearted, juicy reds, such as a youthful Gamay or Pinot Noir, also work well with the rich flavours and refresh the palate.
Be cautious with powerful tannins and high alcohol, because they tend to enhance the heat.