We’ve always had a love affair with Chinese food here in NYC; after all, who else delivers at 3 in the morning with a foot of fresh, wet snow on the ground! But of course, there is NYC Chinese restaurant food and then there is Chinese food.
With Chinese New Year upon us on February 3 (ushering in the Year of the Rabbit), and the growth of China as an important cultural reference in many communities, it’s a perfect time to think a bit about Chinese food and how pairing wines with these dishes can play an increasingly important role in our culinary landscape.
The Chinese seem to have a particular affinity for Bordeaux, and while that would not be my first choice to pair with many Chinese dishes, the pantheon of Chinese cuisine is broad and wide, and there is a great match for almost every wine. The trick is in teasing out the elements that work well together!
The Chinese love the good things in life and in the world of wine nothing symbolizes that more than Classed Growth Bordeaux. While the rigid, tannic nature of Bordeaux doesn’t pair well with many of the basic elements of Chinese cuisine, there are several dishes that really do have synergy with Bordeaux. Tea-smoked duck, for example, is a dish I have frequently paired with Bordeaux to great success. In the spirit of Chinese New Year, you might want to serve a nice duck preparation with Bordeaux to your Chinese friends, though remember to leave the head and feet on for New Year’s!
For more about a Chinese New Year Menu, see our article A Chinese New Year Feast on our sister site WhatsCook.in.
Dumplings are a traditional element in a Chinese New Year’s feast, not to mention a staple on most restaurant menus. The combination of garlic, ginger and soy that one typically encounters in dumplings can make them tricky to pair with wine. This is a great spot for an off-dry sparkling wine. A sparkling Gewürztraminer (there are some out there) or a Cremant d’Alsace that may include some spice in the blend would be ideal, but even an excellent Moscato d’Asti or Prosecco can be a fun match for unpretentious dumplings.
Spring rolls, and other fried dishes, such as fried dumplings for example, tend to need more acid than most off-dry sparkling wines can provide. Spring rolls are generally not very heavily seasoned and have a vegetable component that make them well suited for serving with Grüner Veltliner or Sauvignon Blanc, each of which has vibrant acidity paired with clear fruit and a little vegetal component of their own. Another alternative is a zesty, lemony Argentine Torrontes, whose flavors can offer great contrast to a spring roll’s.
Lettuce wraps. There are a whole world of potentially fillings for lettuce wraps out there. WhatsCook.in featured a delicious, spicy boldly flavored version with duck as an element in a Chinese New Year’s feast and in some ways the flavors of that wrap are so typically of many Chinese meat-based dishes that I thought it worth pairing with wine, but what wine you ask? Well, in this case, because of the heat, spice and richness of the dish I’d opt once again for an off-dry sparkling wine, but this time a red one!
Sparkling Shiraz or, even better, Malbec, would be an ideal match here, though an excellent Italian Lambrusco would work well, too. The spice of the dish would be tempered by the sweet edge of the wine and the rich flavors of the wine would meld with the deep, complex flavors of the duck.
In addition to being the way to gauge any chef’s prowess in the kitchen, roast chicken has to be one of the wine-friendliest dishes around, even when jazzed up with assertive Chinese seasonings. In this case, the spice, ginger, and garlic calls out for a wine that is equally bright and assertive. I might be tempted to go with Pinot Noir here, but in truth an excellent Nebbiolo has just the right combination of flavor and finesse to act as the perfect foil for this bird.
If you’d rather pair this dish with a white wine, consider a wine that has seen some barrel-ageing. The spice element imparted to the wine by its time in wood can help form a bridge with the spices in the chicken recipe. A Rioja Blanco Reserva or Gran Reserva seems like a great pairing.
The centerpiece of every Chinese New Year’s celebration, a whole fish -- typically steamed but possibly fried, baked, or broiled -- can be a breeze to pair with wine. Though if you’re going the spicy route, and that is also not unusual, the picture gets a bit murkier. Typically one can temper the heat in a dish with a little bit of sweetness, and this case it’s no different! German Riesling, off-dry, a nice Kabinett or Spatlese, is a perfect partner for a spicy fish preparation, whether steamed or fried.
Germany Rieslings are super food-friendly because they generally are all about the fine interplay between their brilliant acids, which marry with a dish’s fattier components, and sugars, perfect for parrying spice and heat.
Noodles are a typical dish for Chinese New Year's and pairing them with a luxury ingredient such as lobster can really make the dish special and help ensure an interested audience! Chardonnay is a natural with lobster and the lightly spicy style commonly encountered in Chinese cooking really lends itself to a lightly oaked style of Chardonnay. While good village-level Burgundy might be perfect in a situation like this, examples from South Africa can pack just the right balance of weight and spice to work wonders with the dish.
A Chinese New Year Feast
Inspired to create your own Chinese New Year celebration? Check out A Chinese New Year Feast on our sister site What'sCook.in for recipes.
For more on picking the perfect wine to go with your meal, go to Classic Food and Wine Pairings.
And if you're a new fan of Bordeaux, get some help deciphering the labels at How to Read a Bordeaux Wine Label.