The complexities, variance and spices of traditional Chinese cooking have sometimes been known to scare off even the most intrepid wine drinkers and purveyors. Like the mythical Nian running in terror from a child clad in red, the world of wine retreats – either behind a cold beer, (plausible), a soft drink (horrors) or a hastily built list of costly wines, which have no relation to Chinese food and everything to do with sales margins.
So, a cuisine that is typically a favorite of America’s young adults – a demographic that’s become more wine-friendly than ever – gets short shrift from most of the wine industry. A wine list featuring a buxom Bordeaux or muscular Merlot in a restaurant that specializes in spicy Szechwan? The clash might be more disturbing than the firecrackers thrown at the aforementioned Nian.
There is much relevance to these laments: The Chinese New Year has just begun its 15-day feast. Plus, it’s the Year of the Dragon, the most powerful sign of the Chinese zodiac. So, its time to be resolute, and seek out some new, value-priced wines that won’t leave one’s palate or wallet feeling fire-bombed after washing down Kung Pao with a high-tannin blockbuster.
Below are some wine-and-food pairings to enjoy over the next couple of festive weeks. In the spirit of the heady dragon, and the ramblings of past columns, the following won’t be chow-mein-and-Kung-Fu-Girl-Riesling meet-ups. Even if one’s celebration of Chinese New Year amounts to nothing more than take-out and a few stray bottle rockets, wine experimentation is encouraged as a resolution for all.
Tortoise Creek Viognier Vin d’Pays 2010: A great medium-bodied wine that’s not as acidic as a Sauvignon Blanc – and unlike many Chardonnays, sees no oak. “This would be great with Moo-Shu variations,” says Donald Hupp of Que Syrah in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. “It’s nice and floral on the nose, with stone fruit on the palate – lots of white peach. $12.
Thomas Schmitt (Mosel) Riesling: Asian influences abound at Chicago’s eclectic downtown restaurants, including State and Lake Chicago Tavern, in First Hospitality Group’s Wit Hotel. There, the menu features a Sesame Tuna Crunch, with Napa Cabbage, Edamame, wontons and ginger-soy dressing. “The Thomas Schmitt is a phenomenal pairing with this dish,” says FHG sommelier Eoin O’Donnell. “The acidity is balanced with a hint of sweetness, and complements the weight, texture and dressing of this entrée.” $15.
Mount Difficulty Roaring Meg Riesling: Another Riesling to consider, for the really spicy dishes like Kung Pao – which actually have a bit of sugar, too – is a semisweet version. The Mount Difficulty from New Zealand can stand up to the piquancy of Szechwan influences. It has enough body – with flavors of melon and honeysuckle – to withstand the spicy onslaught. $12.
Michel Redde Sancerre: This wine is crisp and palate-cleansing – great to have with a Cantonese-inspired seafood dish. O’Donnell also suggests mussels with green curry sauce served with a Thai-style rice cake. “The medium-plus body of this wine not only stands up to but complements the curry in this dish,” he says. “The acidity and intense mineral undertones tame the bite of the curry sauce. Phenomenal!” (It can be $18 if found on close-out specials.)
Stefano Farina Barbera d’Asti:There are heavier, richer Chinese dishes that can pair nicely with some not-so-heavy red wines, and a great value is this Barbera. “It’s got low tannin and really works well with crunchy beef,” says Hupp. “Like the Viognier I mentioned, it works very well with Moo-Shu dishes, and also barbecued pork.” $12.