Once again it’s time to say Happy Chinese New Year.
I just realized that this occasion was fast approaching a few days ago, halfway through a voluminous “single” portion of piquant pork and vegetables at my friendly neighborhood Sichuan restaurant.
To start the celebration early, I ordered the blanc de blanc white table wine, having seen nothing on the wine list that I usually like with Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food — no traminer, no sauvingnon blanc, no spicier chenin blane or pinot gris. My first sip made me wish I’d ordered something else, even mineral water. This one should have been renamed bland de bland.
Blanc de blanc is a blended cuvee of white grapes native to the producing region. The varietals used in a blanc de blanc blond, although seldom given on the front label, often appear on the back label. Though this may be irrelevant, since individual grape identity (character) sometimes gets lost in a blanc de blanc containing three or more different varietals.
If it tastes good, it doesn’t matter. The results can be fascinating, even delightful. Or they can be, as mine was, hopelessly dull and indifferent. Historically the Chinese have been great innovators. Let’s hope the innovative tradition carries over to their wine-making. It will be a better world.
If you’re about to have Chinese food during the Chinese New Year, or at any time, bear in mind that wine writers’ customary advice to enjoy this type of wine or that type with Chinese food is not etched in stone. (The same goes for any type of food.) In the wine world, few things are. Think about the ingredients, the seasoning.
At an unfamiliar restaurant where you’re unsure of the food and the wine, but sure of your judgment, order the food, take a taste and then order the wine that seems right. Ask to see the wine bottle so you can check the label and thus assist your judgment.
If you’re having fish or seafood, Chinese or otherwise, a dry white is the usual choice. However, the seasoning is a big factor. Although all fish dishes, Japanese yakizakana (grilled fish), Sichuan-style fish and Thai pakaponi, for example, are seasoned quite differently. The ideal wine for each may even be something quite unassuming.
At a recent wine seminar I held for a mixed group of Japanese scholars and medical doctors I served several French and Belgian cheeses and smoked Atlantic salmon (with capers). The wine that brilliantly complemented the smoked salmon was a L’Estabel Coteaux du Languedoc ’99 that was simply so-so by itself. Similarly, the Co^tes de Bergerac Moelleux ’99 was glorious with the Roquefort, although it is too sweet for most food. My attendees, however, wrote down the wines’ names as if they were recording landmark discoveries.
My most recent Chinese dinner several days ago was a large fried river trout with vegetables in piquant sauce (a bit of red pepper, peppercorns, garlic, ginger), and, alongside it, lightly seasoned sauteed bean sprouts and noodles. Brilliant! With a main dish seasoned in this way order a sauvignon blanc. A Californian, Austrian or Chilean would go well, as would a Gewurztraminer, but don’t hesitate to order other whites or light reds.
Of course, one must take into account the wide diversity of Chinese cuisine, which reflects the great geographical sprawl of China. The Kwangdong (Canton), Beijing (Peking), Shanghai and Sichuan schools of Chinese cuisine are the main four, and some exacting gourmets would add Hunan as a fifth. Fine with me, so long as the wine is working with the fish, the fowl, the bearpaws, the moose noses and what have you.