As I mentioned in this week’s Dining column, the Hong Kong Tea House & Restaurant doesn’t presently serve alcohol. But in Chinese restaurants that do, or when dining on Chinese take-out at home, you might be faced with the dilemma of which wine, if any, to drink with dinner. Beer is commonly touted as the drink of choice to pair with Chinese food. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with sipping a Chinese Tsing Tao beer or a well-made American or European lager—something like Lev from Czechoslovakia or locally-brewed Provo Girl, for example.
But wine lovers needn’t necessarily eschew wine when eating Chinese cuisine, as long as they remember a couple of basic wine pairing principles. Since spicy food tends to exaggerate tannins and the natural bitterness in wine, tannic red wines will usually be a poor choice for even mildly spicy foods. Red wines can also mask the subtle flavors of many Chinese dishes. In addition, the relatively high alcohol of red wine when combined with hot and spicy food creates an inferno on the palate. So with the exception of certain meat and duck dishes mentioned below, I’d tend to steer away from Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in favor of a lighter Rosé or even white Zinfandel. When it comes to Chinese food, generally speaking, I’d think pink, not red.
I’d be tempted to begin dinner at a Chinese restaurant with a bowl of hot and sour or egg drop soup and a glass of sherry. For the main courses, I’d lean primarily toward Alsatian and German or Austrian white wines. Wines like Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Gruner Veltliner tend to be very sensible choices for Chinese food and for good reason. The intense, perfume-like aromas of Gewürztraminer, for example, and its clove, rose-petal and lychee flavors wonderfully compliment a wide range of fragrant Chinese dishes. But keep in mind that China is a huge country with many regional cuisines. Gewürztraminer, for instance, is usually a good choice for spicy Szechwan dishes like Kung Pao chicken. The sweetness of California Gewürztraminer, in particular, serves to counterbalance the heat of red chiles and Szechwan peppercorns.
In contrast to Szechwan fare, Cantonese dishes are more subtly spiced and flavored. So for them, a fruity, crisp Riesling from Alsace or Austrian Gruner Veltliner make a good choice.
Dry Gruner Veltliner is an especially vegetable-friendly wine, fairly low in acid and usually higher in alcohol than German Rieslings. So I’d team it with most asparagus, bok choy, green bean and broccoli dishes. And I’d also give it a try with simply prepared seafood dishes, especially lobster and shrimp, where the more obvious choice might be Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling and steamed pork dumplings, I think, would be a sublime food and wine pairing.
Red wines go well with rich, meat-based dishes with dark, heavy sauces from Shanghai like beef with broccoli or pepper beef. For those, you might uncork a California Cabernet Sauvignon or evena French Bordeaux. Meanwhile, Peking duck is a natural candidate for an Oregon Pinot Noir or red French Burgundy.
But if I had to choose one wine to get me through a Chinese banquet from start to finish, it would probably be Caymus Conundrum, a bright, fragrant wine infused with lovely tropical flavors. It’s one of the most versatile wines I’ve ever encountered.