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Chinese Cuisine

Food, Spices & Wine

With a population of more than 1.3 billion, China has a correspondingly vast and complex cuisine. Most Chinese dishes combine sweet, salty, sour and bitter, but on a per-dish basis, one flavor theme normally dominates the rest. The rule of thumb then when it comes to pairing wine and Chinese food, pair the wine with the dominant theme or flavor.

Chinese-3To find the dominant flavor of a Chinese dish, follow these simple rules. Bitterness will almost never be the dominant flavor. Sweet dishes are cooked in coconut milk and will contain natural or refined sugar. Sour dishes are usually made with rice vinegar, and salty dishes generally contained generous quantities of soy sauce.

Balance is Key

To balance an overpowering sour or salty dish, try a sweeter wine like a German Riesling. The sugar and acid levels in Riesling complement each other and facilitate an ideal match for sour and salty Chinese dishes. Riesling is also an excellent wine to quell the spicy hotness found in some Chinese cuisines.

riesling grapesGewurztraminers and Reislings (left) are excellent choices for spicy dishes containing Szechwan pepper, chili pepper, wasabi, curry and hot mustard and are the varietals most often paired with Chinese food. However, try to stay away from pairing one wine with many Chinese dishes. There are so many regional cuisines found in China, that one variety of wine couldn't possibly compliment all.

Szechuan cuisine for example, is extremely spicy and differs from the rich dishes of Shanghai, the heavier meat dishes of Peking and the milder dishes of Canton. If a variety of Chinese dishes are on the menu, opt for a Riesling that is not too sweet and slightly dry, a Merlot that is medium-bodied with a solid acidity or a Chardonnay with a slight touch of oak, but not too much.

White isn't always Right

Conventional wisdom regarding pairing Chinese food with wine, is to stick with the whites like French Pouilly Fuisse or a Sauvignon Blanc. While this may be true in most cases it does not hold water in certain instances. Mildly spiced dishes pair beautifully with light bodied red wines.

Chinese-2Rich heavy dishes like Peking duck and several beef dishes pair well with Merlot, Bordeaux (right) and Pinot Noir as the tannins in the medium bodied wines cut through the fattiness of the dish. These reds pair well with many beef dishes as well. Another rule of thumb is to avoid full-bodied, very dry, bold reds as they generally clash with Chinese culinary spices.

Herbacious dishes like those flavored with Thai or purple basil or cilantro generally pair well with younger, lighter wines like a Sauvignon Blanc.

Many Chinese dishes contain sweet fruit like mangoes, bananas and peaches. These dishes generally pair well with Gamay, Riesling, Muscat or Gewurztraminer. Barbequed duck and smoked (barbequed) pork pair quite well with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Chinese desserts like those rich in almonds, peaches and peanuts pair nicely with Tawny Ports and Late Harvest Riesling and Madeira.

As with any food and wine pairing, personal choice dictates which wines to serve with which dishes, so experimentation is the best idea if a Chinese feast for guests is planned