by Fiona Fang & Liz Thach, MW
Chinese New Year is a joyous time of the year, and is also referred to as Lunar New Year, because it is celebrated across many Asian countries. Based on the Lunar calendar, which is governed by the monthly cycles of the moon, the New Year is on the first day of the lunar calendar, which falls on February 12 in 2021. Given that many people will still be sheltering at home during that time, it is a perfect opportunity to plan a virtual Chinese food and wine pairing party. Not only will guests have a wonderful time, but it will help support local Chinese restaurants serving take-out meals, as well as local wineries and wine shops. The challenge, as always, is selecting the best wines to match the complex flavors of Chinese cuisine.
The Complex Flavors of Chinese Cuisine
Chinese food is some of the most sophisticated in the world, with historical records illustrating that the Chinese were dining on grilled fish and rice more than 5000 years ago in the Zhou Dynasty. Cooking is considered an art form in China, and the cuisine encompasses regional differences using diverse ingredients and cooking techniques, such as the tender young lamb of Ningxia to the spicy pork of Szechwan. Many Chinese dishes also include all five flavors of sweet, sour, savory (umami), salty and bitter. Ingredients such as soy, hoisin and fish sauce add sweet and salty, savory meats and fried dishes contribute to umami, vegetables and herbs provide a touch of bitter, citrus and vinegar add a sour note – plus the Chinese frequently add a sixth component of spicy peppers.
Pairing Chinese Food with Wine
Given the complexity of many Chinese dishes, it is important to identify wines that are high in acidity, lower in tannins and oak, light to medium bodied, more fruit forward, and in some cases, semi-sweet. This allows for much more flexibility that the standard answer of pairing Chinese food with a semi-sweet Riesling (which is rarely done in China – they prefer to drink more red wines), but at the same time Riesling is a good match for certain dishes.
The following paragraphs provide some wine and Chinese food suggestions, so that guests can have some flexibility when ordering their take-out Chinese food and purchasing wine.
Bubbles – Champagne, Prosecco or Sparkling Wine
Sparkling wine is a great pairing with Chinese appetizers and lighter dishes. The high acidity and scrubbing bubbles help cleanse the palate and bring out the savory/salty flavors of many of these favorites:
- Spring Rolls and Potstickers
- Dumplings – vegetable or meat based
- Tofu Soup of Sliced Tofu Salad
- Sweet Rice Balls
- Ginger Scallion Lobster
- Chinese New Year’s Speciality – Sweet glutinous rice cake (nian gao), which is also called New Year Cake. It can be sweet or savory and is very sticky, so sparkling wines are a great pairing. This can also be used as a dessert course.
Aromatic Dry Whites – Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Albariño and Torrontés, Etc.
Delicate, aromatic dry white wines, generally marked by light body, high acidy, minerality, with a range of aromas, pair well with Cantonese food, which tends to be lightly cooked to bring out the natural flavors and umami of its ingredients, while retaining rich mouthfeel. Possibilities include dry Rieslings, aromatic Sauvignon Blancs, and more exotic varietals such as Albariño and Torrontés. Chinese food matches could be:
- Stir fried rice with steamed seafood
- Steamed crab with ginger and vinegar
- Stir fried Shrimp
- Crisp Stuffed Lotus Roots
- Chinese New Year Speciality – Whole steamed fish, lightly seasoned with ginger and scallions, is popular in Chinese New Year as it symbolizes prosperity; the Chinese word for fish, “yu”, is phonetically similar to “excess”, meaning great abundance.
- Chinese New Year Specialty – Noodles, symbolizing longevity, is another staple dish during Chinese New Year (and many other occasions). Stir fried noodles like chow mein, with flavorful fattiness, pair with crisp, aromatic white wines.
Semi-Sweet White Wines: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Moscato, Longyan (Dragon Eyes)
The subtle sweetness of off-dry white wines makes them suitable for spicier, or even more pungent foods; the wine’s cold temperature helps to cool off and cleanse the palate. In fact, the acidity and hint of sweetness make it quite versatile to balance flavorful, salty and fattier foods. In addition to semi-sweet white wines like Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Moscato, search for wines made from the Longyan grape, also called Dragon Eyes, which is one of the special semi-sweet white wines made in China. Food pairing options include:
- Dim Sum appetizers
- BBQ Pork Buns
- Spicy Szechuan Chicken
- Deep-fry Marinated Pork
- Chinese New Year Speciality – Egg rolls with sweet chili or vinegar-soy dipping sauce: imitating the appearance of gold bullion with its deep fried golden crisp skin, fried egg rolls are a part bringing prosperity in the new year. Lightly dipped in a sweet chili or vinegar-based sauce makes it pair perfectly with off-dry white wines.
- Chinese New Year Speciality – Turnip cakes with chili or soy-vinegar dipping sauce: often seen in dim sum restaurants, pan-fried turnip cake is commonly eaten during Chinese New Year for good fortune. Off-dry white wines balance the fat and brings out its umami.
Light Fruity Red/Rosé Wines – Gamay, Grenache, Pinot Noir, etc. Plus Rosé
Fruity, light bodied red wines with low tannins and most Rosés often pair well with Chinese cuisine. The range of fruit and floral flavors make these wines quite forgiving with many umami-rich dishes. Examples include Gamay (Beaujolais), Grenache, Pinot Noir, and even light bodied Cabernet Francs. Most any fruity Rosé can also create a delightful pairing:
- Stewed pork belly or Pork Meatballs
- Braised chicken with mushrooms
- Schezhan Chicken
- Kung Pao chicken
- Braised vegetables – especially cabbage and radishes, which are good luck for New Years.
- Chinese New Year Speciality – Peking duck with steamed crepes: A classic crowd-pleaser, Peking duck with its crisp delicate skin, rich dark meat served on warm crepes with plum sauce pairs great with light bodied reds with higher acidity.
Bold, Elegant Red Wines – Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux Blend, Malbec
Though most Western food and wine pairing experts, do not recommend pairing bolder red wines with Chinese food due to bigger tannins and oak, many gourmands in China do not pay attention to this rule. Frequently a good bottle of red Bordeaux is paired with Chinese delicacies at top restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai. The key is selecting a bold red that has a high acid and more moderate oak, such as a Syrah from the Northern Rhone or a French Margaux, that is more Merlot dominant. Though the tannins will accentuate the savory components in the food, it will also cut through the fat. Furthermore, if the dish has enough salt and sour tastes, this will also help the wine to come into balance. But some Chinese say they enjoy the bold and explosive tastes of tannins paired with spicy food – creating fireworks in your mouth. Possible Chinese dishes to pair with bold yet elegant red wines include:
- Beef and Broccoli Lo Mein With Oyster Sauce
- Stir Fried Beef with Vegetables
- Fried Chinese Spare Ribs
- Chinese New Year Specialty – Braised Shitake Mushrooms with Bok Choy is a tasty vegetarian option traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year. The savoury tastes, if accompanied by a salty soy sauce, can stand up to the tannins in a bolder red wine, and create a warm balanced finish.
Scheduling and Logistics for Virtual Wine & Food Chinese New Year Celebration
The easiest way to organize an exciting Virtual Wine & Food Chinese New Year Celebration is to send email invitations to friends and family at least 2 weeks in advance and select three wines from the above list. The date/time can be anytime in February, because the Chinese often celebrate Chinese New Year for two weeks. Provide information on where they can purchase the wines, either online or at a local winery, grocery store or wine shop. Then provide them with the list of possible Chinese food pairings from above, and ask them to select at least one pairing per wine to order as a take-out meal from a local Chinese Restaurant. It is not necessary that everyone select the same food, because part of the fun is in discussing how it tastes with the wine.
Schedule the event via Zoom, WebEx, or any other virtual meeting platform that is available for your guests. When the big day arrives, moderate the session by beginning with a happy Chinese New Year toast, and then ask people to open and taste the first wine, providing information on the wine. Then taste the wine with the first dish and ask for feedback, including which Chinese dish they are tasting with the first wine. Repeat this process with the other two wines and end the session with a classic Chinese toast: “gong hei fat choy,” which means “wishing you prosperity and good fortune.”