by Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman Sat 14 Feb 2015
Celebrations will be in full swing from Shanghai to Sydney with the start of the Chinese New Year. This year the beginning of the Chinese year, according to the lunisolar calendar, falls on Thursday 19 February. This colourful festival always includes special dishes and plenty of food – as it is always seen as polite to offer guests more food than they need when the Chinese entertain at their sumptuous banquets.
The traditional liquid accompaniments might be green tea or beer, but on my recent trip to China to visit the burgeoning vineyards across the Shandong peninsula, we did interesting trial matches of food and wine at the new Pula Valley wine centre (see image of their winemaker Melody Yu tasting) near Yantai and other wineries around Penglai. Not just imported wines, but wines made from Chinese grapes. Red wine, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, is still hugely popular in China – with the Cabernet Gernischt grape (the same as French grape Carmenere) showing greatest promise – but is not such a great match with lighter Chinese dishes.
The challenge I found in China was that at a banquet many of your dishes are delivered to the table at the same time. It is sometimes hard to discern which dish is slightly less spicy than the other – as the dishes keep arriving in front of you. My general rule is that really spicy dishes needed less complex wines – but I also found that for an overall versatile wine a rich creamy lightly oaked Chardonnay or Viognier actually works well with many of the dishes.
Here are a few of my surprisingly successful matches if you are planning a Chinese meal at home or heading out to your favourite Chinese restaurant next week:
As I discovered in China, a whole steamed fish is considered a sign of bounty and surplus – so that is why it is often served at traditional Chinese New Year banquets. A delicate dish, it needs a lighter style of wine from a grape like Riesling or Pinot Blanc. In China there are plenty of Riesling Italico wines now being produced, but these tend to be a bit blander and lighter than true Riesling. I find some of the drier French Alsace examples work well, as do off-dry German Kabinetts and Loire Chenin Blanc which go well with smokier spicier fish dishes. If the fish is cooked in a rich soy-based sauce, I would suggest a light red like New Zealand Pinot Noir.
Wine recommendation: LES PRINCES ABBE RIESLING 2011 SCHLUMBERGER (£11.99 Majestic Wine)
SPICY PORK DIM SUM
These small bite-sized steamed dumplings are traditionally drunk with tea. One of my favourite places to eat these soup dumplings is at the Din Tai Fung outlets (see right) which originated in Taiwan with outlets all across China, Japan, Singapore, USA – but have yet to appear in the UK. It might not be traditional, but why not try a wine recommendation instead. I tried everything from rose fizz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chilean Chardonnay, Austrian Gruner Veltliner, Beaujolais to Rhone Syrah. It does depend on the dumpling filling, with more sesame oil and soy sauce used, lighter reds worked better – but my favourite for pork dim sum is a richer weighty white like Gruner Veltliner or Viognier.
Wine recommendation: GRUNER VELTLINER TERRASSEN 2013 MARKUS HUBER (£10.50 Oddbins)
DEEP FRIED CHICKEN
Can be really spicy – often cooked with red vinegar which makes it hard to match with wine. This popular Cantonese dish can also be quite greasy and rich textured, so head for a big fruity sweet New World Chardonnay or Viognier. For reds head for less tannic varietals like medium bodied Chilean Merlot, Pinot Noir or a mature Gamay works well.
Wine recommendation: CUVAISON CALIFORNIAN CHARDONNAY 2010 (£22 www.tanners-wines.co.uk; www.corksout.com)
There is nothing better with duck than a juicy lush Pinot Noir – personally I prefer Kiwi Pinots rather than Burgundy with this dish. You could also serve a mature red Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape or an old vine Navarra Garnacha.
Wine recommendation: YEALANDS SINGLE BLOCK SERIES R3 PINOT NOIR 2013 (£12.99 Marks & Spencer)
SWEET & SOUR RIBS
Bring out a heavier red for this rich sticky dish or other beef dishes. Argentinian Malbec or Chilean Syrah work quite well, but perhaps the most topical is a Chinese Cabernet Gernischt – which you can even now buy in a shop near you in the UK. This is the same grape as Carmenere (also found in France and Chile) – but it has been grown in Wuhai Valley in Inner Mongolia in China since the 1800s. This Chinese Cabernet is much lighter bodied than any Chilean Carmenere I have had, but is softly tannic and smooth with a light touch of spice. It would certainly make an authentic touch to your Chinese celebration.
Wine recommendation: HANSEN CABERNET GERNISCHT 2012 (£10 The Beerhive, Rodney Street, Edinburgh www.thebeerhive.co.uk; Vintage Roots www.vintageroots.co.uk)
Join Rose at her Austrian & German Classics Masterclass on Thurs 19 March at 28 Queen Street, Edinburgh £40 www.rosemurraybrown.com