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Features Wine and Wontons
Wine and Wontons?
March 2009

In the past several years, the Chinese have been taking to wine in a serious way, as consumers and even as producers. At one level, it’s prestige brands—witness the demand for Champagne, Bordeaux, and icewine—but it’s also happening at lower price points, including domestic wine production. How long will it be before we’re learning appellation names like Xiangjiang and Wuwei as part of sommelier training? On a more practical level, for now, there’s also the question of how their cuisine works with wine.

Take a classic like Peking Duck. Duck normally calls for a lighter red like a Pinot Noir, but some recipes are rich enough to stand up to heartier wines like Grenache, Syrah, or even Cabernet. But Peking Duck is all about the crispy skin, which works well with something more acidic. Then, especially if you add in some fruitiness and acidity like Craig Petrella’s Mango Peking Duck with Garlic Noodles, you’ll be better off with a white—something with some body, but still crisp. For example, Masi, the Amarone producer, makes one white, which pumps up Pinot Grigio with some Amarone techniques and a native grape variety, Verduzzo. The latter has a great, tropical fruit character, and by letting the grapes dry out on straw mats (just as the red grapes in an Amarone do), the Verduzzo contributes a lot of body and texture to the wine, while the Pinot Grigio keeps it fresh. It’s called Masianco; 2007 is the current vintage ($14).

Acidity, as well as a touch of sweetness, becomes even more useful when confronted by the spicy heat of some Szechuan cuisine, where tannins (that is to say, most red wines) or oak, (whether in a white or red) tend to come off harsh. Michael Tong’s Sechwan Prawns work very well with a Riesling like the Willi Schaefer Graacher Domprobst Spätlese #12 2007 (#37). Light-bodied, concentrated, and rounded out by a well-balanced touch of sweetness, it’s got beautiful fruit notes like tangerine and peach, with an underlying slatey minerailty.

What about a classic flavor of Chinese cuisine that’s not about heat, like oyster sauce? Common in Cantonese cooking, oyster sauce pushes the umami factor with its earthy tones. Exactly where you go with it depends on the protein in the dish, but you can either contrast that character with something fruity, or match it with a wine with its own earthy touch. For example, Jackie Passmore’s Pork Lo Mein calls for something light to medium-bodied; broccoli beef, another classic made with oyster sauce, might accommodate a fuller-bodied wine, but pork could get a little overwhelmed. So if we go the fruity route, a Barbera like the Renato Ratti ‘Torriglione’ Barbera d’Alba 2006 ($22) will go well. Its red plum and cherry tones are touched by a bit of smoke, and it has Barbera’s typical low tannins, but its acidity comes through to cleanse the palate between bites. If you want to pile earthiness on top of earthiness, Burgundy’s probably the place to go. Red Burgundies can have a similar structure to Barbera, but with a different flavor profile. The Domaine Delagrange Vielles Vignes Volnay 2006 ($42) has a touch of cherry typical to a Volnay, but also brings the funk we’re talking about.

I mentioned broccoli beef; there are also beef dishes with fruit flavors, as in Michael Tong’s Crispy Orange Beef. Well, if you have some of that Barbera left, you’re probably in good shape, because its acidity and low tannins are going to work well. However, if you want a red with a little more, er, beef to it, some Zinfandels will have what you need. Full-bodied, they tilt away a little bit from those traits, but not too much. The Cline Cellars Ancient Vines Zinfandel 2007 ($18) has a soft mouthfeel and lots of dark fruit notes along with espresso, milk chocolate, and spice notes that complement the orange in the dish.

I’m certainly grateful for the gold rings—ka-ching!—though I don’t know how I’ll ever wear them all. I can’t match that in generosity without winning the lottery, but maybe a wine with some sort of cute connection would work. Let’s see…five rings… Olympics… China?.... No…I mean, sure, they’re making more and more wine there, but… maybe something more classical…Greece! The Mitravelas Estate in Nemea, the northern part of the Peleponnese, makes some great reds, avoiding the acidity problems and stewy tomato character that plague some Greek wines. Their 2004 Agiorghitiko is fairly full, but well-focused, with red and dark fruit notes, some roast coffee, pepper, and cocoa touches, and smooth tannins.

When you’re wrapping up, Chinese desserts go a long way past fortune cookies these days; try Pichet Ong’s Tangerine Pie for a New Year favorite. Icewine seems like an obvious choice given its popularity in China and it works, too, since icewines are all about the fruit. Peller Estates’ Riesling Icewine 2006 ($52) comes through splendidly, full-bodied and lush, but finishing clean, with lots of tropical fruit and lemony scents, and even the touch of tangerine that the recipe doesn’t have (It’s actually made with pineapples—read the recipe to find out why).




  • Barbera
  • Icewine
  • Italian Whites
  • Burgundy

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