Can Tokaji – the great dessert wine of Hungary, and one of the sweetest wines in the world – go with Chinese food, asks Margaret Rand? And if it can, would you want it to?
Christian Seely’s answer to both these questions is ‘yes’. He runs the wine division of AXA Millsimes, which owns such properties as Château Suduiraut in Sauternes and Disznk in Tokaj, and one of his big interests is pairing these wines with Asian cuisines.
He’s been hosting occasional dinners of this sort for several years – in London he’s done Suduiraut with Chinese food and Disznk with Indian – and the latest occasion was in Tokaj, where a brace of Chinese chefs, flown out for the occasion, cooked Sichuan dishes to match Disznoko of various vintages and levels of sweetness.
The chefs were Tommy and Andy Shan of Au Bonheur du Palais in Bordeaux. To Seely’s mind this is the best restaurant in Bordeaux and as good as any Chinese restaurant in the world – quite a recommendation. Andy Shan does the cooking; Tommy is front-of-house: gregarious, multilingual and the leader in the pair’s intensive researches into food and wine matching.
He describes their food as Sichuan, with some Cantonese influences. But it’s the strong flavours of Sichuan cooking that make it a possible match for Tokaji. Ask him which other wines he might serve in the restaurant (by the glass, to go with particular dishes rather than all the way through the meal) and he mentions Château de Beaucastel white from the Rhone; white Bandol from Provence; Banyuls; Pouilly-Fumé, especially from the late Didier Dageneau; Loire Chenin Blanc; dry and sweet Alsace from such names as Domaine Weinbach, Ostertag, Marcel Deiss and Hugel; and from outside France, Inniskillen Icewine.
Not all these wines are sweet, but some are very sweet indeed. The sugar is the attraction: it neutralizes the chilli in the food, and he plays with the balance of the two until he reaches a point of harmony.
This is anathema to the old British idea of choosing a wine to cut through the richness of a dish. Why, asks Tommy rhetorically, would you want to do that? What you want is complementarity, he says: it’s a response to the global experience of flavours. Red Bordeaux, he reckons, can be good with Cantonese cooking, with its low levels of spice and simple ingredients, but Sichuan flavours are complex and spicy and need something more challenging.
The dishes for this dinner are all classic ones. The Shans have adjusted the levels of chilli, but that’s all; otherwise the recipes are unchanged. And drinking Tokaji with them does at first seem rather odd.
There are two appetizers, beef straw potatoes with sesame seeds, and shrimps with ‘daily’ Jia-chang flavours. Neither seems particularly successful with the Late Harvest 2007, which seems to swamp them with its sweetness; and for the first course we move on to Asz 4 puttonyos 2004; a light year, but one, paradoxically, with a lot of botrytis: the wine is relatively light, with truffley, creamy notes and good acidity.
For us, drinking this Tokaji with beef tongue, and with Pang-Pang chicken with sesame creamed sauce, the sweetness is the dominant factor. For the Shans the sweetness is only part of the picture. Texture is just as vital, and the finely-sliced tongue has a silky firmness that chimes with the wine.
Yes, the sweetness stands out, but it sort of works, in an unexpected way. The chicken is delicate, though, and while the earthy note of the sesame is interesting with the wine the flavours don’t quite meet. The chilli needs to build up in the mouth a bit more; as it does, the wine begins to make more sense.Two sweeter wines follow: 5 puttonyos 2000 and 2001. With these are paired crispy, spicy sweet-and-sour Yuxiang chicken; King prawns fried in the ‘Halook’ wok; and leg of pork braised Dong-Po style (caramelized version). The two wines are totally different, the 2000 full of apricot and pineapple flavours, fresh, clean and focused, the 2001 leaner, smokier and more pungent. One might have backed the 2001 to match the food better, but in fact it’s the 2000 that is superb with the pork.
Texturally the slow-cooked pork is soft and richly fatty; the flavours are complex, with star anise to the fore. It’s a hit. The chicken is also pretty good with the 2000; perhaps it’s the higher acidity of the 2001 that gets in the way? But the dense flavour of the prawns works better with the 2001.
Then even sweeter wines, the 2000 and 1999 6 puttonyos. These are to go with veal with Chinese anise and tangerine peel, and Tsasui caramelized roast pork. The 2000 is pungent, creamy and approachable, the 1999 more linear, with higher acidity; and the veal is dark and caramelized, with a note of star anise. Neither is perfect, but the complexity of the 1999 is quite successful both with the veal and with the hot, pungent pork, and a faint tingle on the tongue from Sichuan pepper helps them to come together.
And finally, the biggest surprise of all: 1993 6 puttonyos with what is described as smoked salmon in red pepper oil. Well, it’s not smoked salmon in the Scottish sense; it is a cube of salmon that has been smoked and caramelised on one side. The texture is soft and melting; and the match is sensationally good. It’s the star of the evening: adventurous, imaginative and spot-on.
All of which raises the question: how do the Shans arrive at these matches? The answer is, via the 23 families into which they divide spices. They taste a wine, and they’re able, pretty easily now, to pinpoint the particular family of spices with which it will go. After that it’s a question of texture and heat.
And it works. I wouldn’t want to drink Tokaji all through a Chinese meal, even one as good as this; but that is not the intention of the Shans, or of Christian Seely. It’s a glass with a particular course that is the idea.
It might be a bit of a problem then switching to something drier – or even something red – for the course that follows, but it would certainly keep one on one’s toes. And it makes Chinese food freshly exotic, so that one can discover it anew – which is rather fun.