Not a great deal has been written on what is admittedly the relatively new area of pairing international wines with Chinese cuisine. Or should that be Chinese cuisines? This vast country, now in the grips of the Olympics at last, boasts an incredible array of provincial and regional dishes, embracing just about every cooking technique under the sun – many of which, of course, were either “invented’ or developed in China itself.
So, if you want to explore Chinese cooking and try your hand at matching your favorite wines with different dishes, how can you get started? And what dishes might partner well with Iberian wines, an equally diverse world of flavors and textures?
China’s rich culinary heritage is hugely complex. But, put simply, four overall groups dominate: Lu (Shandong), Yue (Cantonese), Chuan (Sichuan) and Huaiyang (Jiangsu). What wines match with these groups? Given the innate diversity of these cuisines, Chinese gourmets will find this question bizarre: a bit like saying, “What wines can pair with French, Spanish, Norwegian or Austrian food’? The answers can seem endless, but we have to start somewhere.
Below are some specific examples from each school of cooking matched with one or more Spanish or Portuguese wines. There are certainly enough wine-styles and types of wine-making in the Iberian Peninsula to offer some great matches with Chinese dishes from different traditions.
And, if some of these cuisines are not all that available outside China, the great Cantonese Diaspora has at least meant that what passes for Chinese food in other countries is essentially Cantonese in origin or influence. Fortunately, Cantonese cooking is also among the most wine-friendly of China’s great cuisines.
Shandong food is well-known for its purity of flavor and considerable use of fish – the coastal cities of Yantai and Qingdao boasting superb sources of seafood and river fish alike. This relatively rich cuisine combines various techniques, but stir-frying, deep-frying and braising are common. One Shandong classic is “sweet and sour’ Mandarin fish which pairs well with oaked rich whites such as high-quality white Rioja at Crianza or Reserva levels. White Rioja, when well-made, yields oxidized citrus fruit, but is not too fruit-driven (which would interfere with the “fruity’ quality of the sauce here) whilst the oak lends a savory contrast. White Rioja is also not particularly acidic and is relatively full-bodied. A light-bodied, high acid wine would ruin the balance between acidity and sweetness in this dish.
With lighter seafood dishes, you can try some of the more aromatic Spanish grapes, as paired below with other regional dishes (see Albariño and Godello, especially) or even something as light as Vinho Verde. Shandong is also famous for its soups made from all manner of ingredients. This opens the door for experimentation with Sherry, particularly Palo Cortado, Amontillado and dry Oloroso wines from top soleras.
The Cantonese are well-known for consuming almost anything that moves, apart from, bizarrely, lamb, which, along with mutton, is eaten more in north and north-Western China. Yue cuisine is similar to Shandong fare combining fresh flavors, seafood and similar cooking techniques, although cooking “in salt’ and considerable use of rice wine feature too. Expect the holy trinity of garlic, ginger and green onion (scallion).
Xia jiao (steamed prawn dumplings) are part of the classic yum cha or dim-sum line-up. As there is no dipping sauce for this dish, wine provides an acidic foil. Good quality Cava, whether from traditional Spanish grapes or with some Chardonnay in the mix, should make a good match, providing refreshing high acidity. Aged red Rioja or older Ribera del Duero wines would also work beautifully with Cantonese pigeon (often braised in rice wine, soy sauce and star anise and then roasted) or other Cantonese roast meats – also try Tawny Ports if you want a richer combination!
Generally speaking, it’s worth avoiding very intensely perfumed varieties such as Moscatel because these have perfumed “sweet’ noses that can overwhelm some Cantonese dishes; although some Spanish aromatic whites can work. Owing to its “clean flavors’, Cantonese cooking is especially wine-friendly and is often the de-fault mode for pairing wines with Chinese food.
Sichuan cooking usually utilizes chili heat and the numbing hua jiao (prickly ash Sichuan “peppercorns’) now used and abused by chefs all over Europe. These strong flavors are commonly balanced with sugar or the use of stir-fried vegetables that taste “sweet’. Garlic and chili’s naturally high acidity, along with the numbing, juniper-like Sichuan “peppercorns’, present challenges to most wines.
A classic dish like Hui guo rou (twice cooked pork) comprises crisp pork belly, garlic, green chili and hua jiao. This dish cries out for aromatic whites such as Albariño from Rias Baixas DO or the similarly aromatic grape Godello, also from Galicia (Valdeorras DO). Ideally, whites with residual sugar work best, but these grapes have enough character and “sweet’ aromas to hold up.
Some robust reds can also pair well too. Try top Priorato, heavier grade Ribera del Duero reds, or dry Douro blends based on Touriga Naçional, again because of their nominally “sweet’ fruit and full bodies. But beware of excessive alcohol and high tannins as these can accentuate spice. Chuan cooking may be tough on wine, but there are some surprising combinations that can work.
Jiangsu cuisine is complex and immensely varied, but expect light, crisp dishes with striking shapes – Huai food is famous for its cutting and presentational techniques – as well as refreshing flavors. Shi zi tou or “lion’s head casserole’ is aesthetically striking: its floating pork mince resembling the heads of Chinese mythological lions (often seen at temples or even outside restaurants!). The pork is simmered in a delicate stock with green vegetables and ginger. Sparkling wines, such as top-quality Cava, would work well here, but so would Rueda Sauvignon Blanc or the classic Verdejo from the same region. The high acidity of all these wines cuts the pork mince and the bubbles in the Cava are a good foil for the salty stock here. Fino or Manzanilla Sherries would also possibly pair well with this dish. Although Sherry is not naturally all that acidic, the “acetic’ and flor-affected flavors combine beautifully with this classic Huaiyang speciality.
Above all, experiment! Some people complain that the vast range of dishes that come to a Chinese dinner table make food-and-wine matching essentially impossible. But people tend to dine in big groups in Chinese restaurants and this means that multiple wines can be served to match with multiple dishes: watch a bottle of Rioja disappear among ten people. Also, Iberian wines are themselves well-placed to match myriad flavors: look at tapas. Tapas is in some ways the equivalent of the “starters’, usually cold dishes, that always begin a Chinese banquet: everything from preserved sausage to jellyfish to pickled cucumbers. If the wines of Spain and Portugal can’t cope with that, we’d be very surprised!
Edward Ragg & Fongyee Walker write for us from Beijing, and you can get more information on their website, Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting