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Pairing wine with Chinese food for the Year of the Ox

From dim sum to takeaway classics, here is our guide to pairing wines with popular Chinese food found in the UK and US if you're planning to celebrate the new Year of the Ox this month.

Wine with Chinese food: Five styles to consider

  • Riesling (dry, off-dry)
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Chardonnay sparkling wines 
  • Pinot Noir
  • Gamay

Matching wine with Chinese food can be somewhat complicated and is often perceived differently in Europe and the US versus China itself.

‘Chinese food’ is a vague concept, according to Shanghai-based sommelier Guo Ying.

‘It only takes around one-and-a-half hours to fly from Japan to South Korea.

‘In China, it can take up to seven hours to fly from one city to another, so it’s not hard to understand why there is such a diversity of ingredients and cooking in different regions.’

To complicate matters further, you may find your favourite Chinese restaurant tries to serve everything to your table at once.

‘Chinese hosts feel guilty if they don’t fill the table in front of their guests with food,’ said Professor Li Demei in a column on DecanterChina.com.

‘However, with such diverse flavours presented all at the same time, how would you pair them with wine?’

Chinese takeaways provide a simpler, westernised approach to the vast possibilities of the 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.

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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.

Find more tips on pairing wines with fried rice here.

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.

Fiona 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 Master of Wine 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 added.

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.

Sylvia Wu is editor of DecanterChina.com and a Decanter regional editor.

Fiona Beckett also blogs on her own website, Matching Food And Wine

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