A recent trip to Beijing and Shanghai opened my eyes anew to the possibilities involved in drinking wine with Chinese food. Many of the conclusions we have painstakingly arrived at in the west turn out to be less obvious when tried out in situ.
Wine is still not widely drunk in China, even among those Chinese who have a tolerance for alcohol. Lager-type beers (the ubiquitous Tsingtao and Yanjing) are much in evidence, but drinking alcohol while eating is still relatively rare. Many restaurants offer the better grades of shaoxing, or rice wine, but these tend to be alcoholic (16-17%) and fairly unsubtle. Clear shaoxing has a coarse, waxy taste, while the brown versions have a little of the oxidative nuttiness of amontillado sherry until the finish, when they remind you by their woody bluntness that they are not grape products after all.
Grape wine (putaojiu) is increasingly widely made in China, especially in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. The popular Great Wall brand from Hebei includes a Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon, which taste like a beginner’s attempt at western-style varietals, but there is also some fantastically well-crafted indigenous wine made with European (mainly French) expertise.
At Aria in the China World Hotel in Beijing, I drank a glass of an astonishingly good Bordeaux-blend red, Grace Vineyards Deep Blue 2004, made in Shanxi province from 60% Merlot and 40% the two Cabernets. Its tobaccoey aromatic intensity, streamlined tannins and complex, savoury fruit would undoubtedly have had me in St-Emilion at a blind tasting. The 2004 vintage was considered exceptional, and it went beautifully with a dish of charred lamb noisettes.
With traditional Chinese food, though, we enter on shakier terrain. Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon was both overly stalky and too lightweight to cope with the dish of shredded pork stir-fried in chilli and garlic I tried to match it with.. Reverting to the textbook, I tried an Alsace Pinot Gris with a dish of scallops and mashed taro, and the resulting combination was a muddled mush of sweetness.
Nor does Gewürztraminer, whether from Alsace or New Zealand, show its paces when drunk with an array of dim sum that included the xiao long bao dumplings of Shanghai (the ones that flood the mouth with red-hot soup when bitten) and sticky spare riblets.
One clear reason for these mismatches stood out. Much Chinese food needs acidity in the wine that might partner it, and those Alsace varietals are not noted for their cutting-edges. Cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc is a much surer bet with stir-fries or deep-fried items because it offers the palate a pleasing contrast. There is consonance of course between Gewürz and gingery seasonings, but douse the shredded ginger in rice vinegar as is customary, and watch the wine shrink in terror.
At Noble Court in the Grand Hyatt, Beijing, an upscale Cantonese menu includes dishes such as pigeon stir-fried with walnuts in seafood-based XO sauce. Again, what worked best here was not the velvet-textured Merlot of Napa Valley, but the harder, clean-lined edginess of a New Zealand Pinot Noir.
The unimpeachable lacquered duck with red bean paste at Beijing’s CourtYard, a traditional enough item on an otherwise innovative menu, was handsomely served by Gibbston Valley Gold River Pinot Noir 2004 from Central Otago, a wine whose mocha-like nose and deep, beefy core of Pinot fruit are buttressed, at this perfect stage of its development, by precision-tooled acidity.
Almost the best match I found, though, was the Taiwanese oolong tea that I drank with a bowl of beefy noodles, so perhaps tradition gets some things right after all . . .
Stuart Walton has been writing about food and wine since 1991, when he began helping out at tastings at the Observer. He is a senior inspector on the Good Food Guide, author of a number of wine and drink books, and co-author of The Right Wine with the Right Food (2003).