By Liza B. Zimmerman
This incredibly diverse cuisine used to be viewed in massively generic terms when I grew up on the Upper West Side of New York. In the 1970s, and the 1980s, when we saw restaurateurs hanging out their shingles serving Mandarin and Sichuan food we knew the tide had turned on generalizing about an enormous country with incredibly diverse regional traditions. Along with inheriting vegetables we couldn’t identify—but were delicious—we also saw old standards like Moo Shu Pork and Egg Foo Young become less popular.
So why should we all be so convinced that that beer is the best pairing for Chinese food? If China, like many Asian countries, had a more diverse history of beer production I might be more positive about food- and beer-paring synergies. The bulk of incredibly light beers, meant for hot-weather consumption, aren’t always the best with food. And well-chosen wines do complement this cuisine.
As with Indian food, whites will often work better than reds. Particularly off-dry whites will calm the heat in some dishes. Classics again would be Rieslings and Gewürztraminers from Germany, Alsace and even New York State. Subdued and elegant Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris also do the trick from those three regions and Oregon, as well as Northern Italy.
I recently spoke to Cassandra Brown, a sommelier at San Francisco’s venerable Chinese multi-unit Chinese dinning–destination Hakkasan—there is one in New York as well—and Owner of The Chocolate Grape - Sommelier consulting service. When I ate there recently she paired high-acid Champagne and primarily white Rhône varietals—mostly from California—with the shifting spice layers of the food. She notes that, “Surprisingly, many types of wine pair well with Chinese food, from wines with high acidity and high mineral content to full-bodied, fruit forward wines. Champagne, Rioja, Pinot Noir, Napa Cabernet, dry or sweet Riesling, even Australian Shiraz. Take your pick!”
When asked what really amps up the pairings with Chinese dishes, she says, “There is the textbook answer of high acid pairing with rich and ‘greasy’ dishes and sweeter wines pairing with spicy dishes. To be honest, you really have to taste your way through it. That's the fun part!” Rules are great and helpful but Cassandra brings us back to the point that everyone’s palate is also subjective.”
She also confirms that “Almost any off-dry, slightly sweet, sweet or full-on dessert sweet wine will tame the heat by coating the palate and counteracting the capsaicin [peppers].” However pairings don’t need to exclusively skew to white wines. I often enjoy spicy Syrahs, such as many of the wines from the Rhône Valley or the Sonoma Coast with these flavors. She adds that, “a nice rich, spicy red like Syrah works for me every time! I like to play around with flavors and not box myself in.” I personally have always been a fan of the intense peppery flavors of many Syrahs and how they work with spicy food. I would start in the Rhône and work my way back through the Sonoma Coast and Walla Walla for some of these finds and their ideal Chinese food pairings.
The bottom line, as with any wine adventure, is finding your own way. The key, she says, is “Learning of what you think goes with what and what you enjoy. In my opinion, wine pairing is about the experience. There is also [the idea that] similar flavors pair well, as well as contrasting elements pair well. It's infinite! Many books have been written on it, and I'm sure many more will be. My advice is that you just enjoy yourself and relax!” Those are words of advice from a true restaurateur.
Cheers from DrinkUpNY!
Liza Zimmerman has been writing and consulting about wine and food for two decades. She is principal of the San Francisco-based Liza the Wine Chick wine writing, education and consulting firm. She has worked on staff and freelance at national magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana, Wine Spectator, Where SF and the Examiner. She currently contributes to Cheers, Wine Business Monthly and the Examiner, among others.
Zimmerman focuses on demystifying wine and transforming it into a tool for business and networking for companies all over the country. Past clients include Genentech, Roche and IBM.
She has visited all the world’s major wine regions and is one of select few in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year precursor to the Master of Wine.