The spiciness and saltiness of much Chinese cuisine calls for sweeter wines and champagnes to provide proper balance.
Few Chinese restaurants in Taipei know how to properly pair Western wines with Chinese food. This is a pity since wine can do much to enliven, accentuate, and enhance the appreciation of a fine meal.
To provide diners with some general guidelines that might help remedy this situation, I sought out some of Taipei¡¦s top gourmets -- Jason Lau, wine consultant at Evergreen Laurel Collection; Mary Nicholls, an independent wine and food consultant, and Shirlee Posner, chef and editor of Centered on Taipei magazine. When it came to choosing a venue, the decision was unanimous -- The Landis Hotel¡¦s Tien Hsiang Lo Hangzhou restaurant. While Nicholls was unable to attend the dinner, she took the time out of her dognapping career to send a few brief comments on the menu from aboard her yacht off the coast of Crete.
Tien Hsiang Lo is one of the few restaurants in town where the staff is knowledgeable in the arts of serving and pairing quality wines. We started with a Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Reserve 1995 champagne to whet the appetite. The Reserve, as with all Veuve Clicquot champagnes, was a bubbly delight. Brut champagne is to be preferred when unaccompanied by food, but Lau recommends that richer, fuller, fruitier champagnes be selected when taken with Chinese dishes.
"Chinese food is saltier than most Western cuisine," notes Lau. "Sweeter champagnes balance this, leaving behind richer, fruity flavors. In addition, sweeter champagnes and wines also calm the palate, reducing the burn from chilies and other spices. Acidity, however, is also important, since this cuts through fats and oils, accentuating the flavors of the food, while ensuring that heavier tastes do not result in wines tasting watery."
When we were ready to begin dining, we moved as per Lau¡¦s suggestion to a Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Rich Reserve 1995 champagne. While many consider the Rich Reserve too raisiny and sweet when drunk alone, its characteristic fruitiness is highly suited to Chinese food -- a match made in heaven.
We had deliberately selected a number of appetizers less for their suitability for drinking with champagne and more to test out how flavors change in different combinations. First we tried the tomato in plum juice. This dish heightened the sugars in both the food and champagne and was, in our unanimous opinion, not a good combination, as it destroyed the fruitiness of the champagne, leaving an excessively cloying and sugary aftertaste.
Nicholls pointed out that demisec champagnes like the Rich Reserve go well with more acidic fruit like sharp apples and strawberries. The plum juice, however, altered the balance. Drinking such fine champagne with this dish would therefore be a waste.
Next we tested the smoked duck egg with jellied egg yolk. Lau and Nicholls both came down firmly against putting eggs and wine together. "The proteins cover the tongue, so you can¡¦t taste the wine," said Lau. "A total waste of good wine. Eggs, asparagus, and spinach are big no-noes," said Nicholls.
While Posner agreed with regard to the yolk, she did find that the lightly smoked egg white went well with the drier Reserve 1995. "Smoked flavors -- think smoked salmon -- go well with Brut champagnes. I also like the smooth texture of the egg whites with the rougher feel of the bubbles in the mouth."
Watch the pickled turnip
Next, we tried sliced beef cold cuts with the champagnes. The beef was slightly peppery, though, and thereby erased all fruitiness and acid from the champagne, leaving it disappointingly watery. Another big mistake was champagne with the pickled turnip, which had a heavy paprika earthiness.
The bitter acids in both the wine and the food were highly accentuated, leaving a terrible aftertaste. Vegetables, as Nicholls pointed out, have "high acidity." Great caution must therefore be exercised when pairing them with wine.
Now that we had conducted our experiments, we moved to the menu prepared by master chef Tseng Hsiu-pao. We began with minced shrimp sauteed with green peas and served on endive. Tseng recommended a Sauvignon Blanc or medium body Chardonnay. More adventurous diners could opt for a Sancerre "La Bourgeois" Henri Bourgeouis 2001.
Sancerre is an interesting choice if you like mustier notes. That said, I will never forget how the wine¡¦s bouquet was once bluntly, if accurately, described to me: cat¡¦s piss. Once you develop a taste for it, however, the wine is highly enjoyable.
Lau had brought a Riesling, so we opened that instead. Compared with the champagnes, the sugar and acid of the Riesling were more capable of standing up to the deep-fried Chinese breadstick mixed in with the shrimp. The aftertaste was sweet, fresh, and fruity. According to Lau, it is precisely for this reason that German Rieslings suit Chinese food so perfectly.
Nicholls agreed, while adding that Italian Pinot Grigio would work as well. "It really depends on the sauce or spices used, but in general, since the acidity is not too intense, it will not overwhelm the shrimp, especially, for example, if you¡¦re eating shrimp and pineapple with a light sweet-and-sour sauce. The wine should just about complement the pineapple -- in terms of sugar and acid levels -- and the sweet and sour can look after themselves."
Posner remarked, though, that the endive was no match for wine. Again, the combination results in excess acidity and heightened bitterness. The baby peas in the dish went well with both the champagne and white wine because peas have higher sugar levels and lower acidity.
The second dish was a crab-roe and tofu soup. Tseng steamed fresh crabmeat and roe with tofu, added chicken stock and vinegar, and served it on a warming dish. Given the heavier, thicker chicken stock -- it was boiled down to a thicker consistency, Chinese style -- Tseng recommended fruitier, smoother red wines like a Napa Crimson Creek Merlot 1998 from the Pine Ridge Winery. The problem with having wines with such soups is the high fat and salt levels, noted Posner.
"I don¡¦t like to drink wine with soup -- they¡¦re both liquids, so the textures are too similar and you really don¡¦t need the wine to quench your thirst," said Lau, inciting Posner to a fit of laughter. "Who drinks wine to quench their thirst?" she asked as the other diners nodded in agreement.
Posner loved the addition of the crab roe, finding that it gave the soup a much needed chewiness, while providing desirable fishy tones a la Mediterranean fish soups. While the Riesling was strong enough to stand up to the soup, red wines with strong tannins were to be avoided in Lau¡¦s opinion, since "salty food tends to accentuate the tannins, making them too raw and leathery." This was borne out when we tested the soup with the 1998 Chateau de la Riviere that had been set out for the third course.
Lau also questioned the need to add vinegar to the soup. "The wine serves the same function, so if you¡¦re drinking wine as an accompaniment, I would leave it out."
Those tricky tannins
The de la Riviere had been chosen by Tseng. When it is drunk on its own, the tannins are raw and unpleasant. Accompanying the pan-fried beef fillet with sesame sauce, however, was an entirely different matter.
The tannins were substantially reduced while pleasantly noticeable, giving strength and body to the wine and greatly enhancing the fruitiness. The tannins admirably pulled the nutty flavors from the sesame, fully caressing the rich beef flavors from the meat. In my opinion, the combination was the highlight of the evening, winning over my carnivorous Argentine-honed heart.
The sauce was complicated by the addition of mustard and kumquat, and there were candied carrots -- made with plum juice (again) -- and vegetables on the side. Clearly, for these, the red was no longer appropriate, and we settled unanimously on the Riesling. Part of the fun of fine dining is the option, if so desired, of bouncing back and forth between wines, though this would no doubt cause many food "experts" to cringe.
By email, Nicholls had suggested Chilean Merlots from a warmer area such as the Colchagua region for Chinese dishes such as stir-fried beef and green onion. Red wine is not always a sure bet, though, when it comes to Chinese food. She recommends a lightly oaked New World Chardonnay with Peking duck, saying that "there are some wonderful New Zealand Pinot Noirs that should do the trick." Finally, with batter-fried meat or fish, Nicholls opts for light-weight, high-acid reds such as Pinot Noir or Grenache or unoaked whites such as Semillon, Chenin Blanc, or Sauvignon Blanc.
The fourth course arrived in the guise of a deep-fried hake fillet with Chinese Shaoxing wine sauce. We unanimously agreed that the Riesling was best able to highlight the fish, given the smoky, toasty, Bourbon flavors provided by the Shaoxing wine. Posner was enchanted by the almost curry-like texture and flavor of the Shaoxing sauce.
The fish was delicate, but the sauce was heavy enough to require a sweeter white. Again, while the Riesling might have seemed excessively sweet on its own, we found the sugars balanced the saltiness of the sauce, while standing up to the heavier oils, allowing a delightfully fruity flavor to emerge. The Shaoxing sauce turned the champagnes to watery insipidness, while aggravating the tannins of the red.
Nicholls chipped in her two drachmas by observing: "For other Chinese-style fish dishes, such as steamed fish with pickled black beans, I imagine a big Muscadet sur Lie with its subtle fruit, high acidity, and big-mouth feel would just about be okay, but the beans are the wild card here."
The final course, assorted wild mushrooms sauteed with asparagus and garlic, had Posner completely wowed. Tseng usually pairs this with a dry, full-bodied Chardonnay, though we decided to finish the Riesling. While Nicholls is not a fan of wine and asparagus, Posner found the combination, in this particular case, uniquely attractive. "As long as the champagne is served properly chilled and the asparagus is hot out of the wok, I don¡¦t see a problem here. If the champagne or wine was not sufficiently chilled, however, the flavors would develop too much and then you¡¦d have a clash."
Lau found the dish more appealing with either the Rich Reserve or the Riesling. One of the reasons this particular dish went better with wines is because Tseng had sauteed the vegetables in butter and chicken sauce with a touch of cilantro. Tseng, who had joined us by this point, likes to maintain a traditional Hangzhou style of cooking, but is not averse to adding innovative touches such as this when appropriate or desired, and doing so had clearly won over Lau and Posner. Besides, Posner had found favor with the fact that Tseng¡¦s figure was something akin to our own. "Never trust a skinny chef," she warned, to which I would add "or a skinny food critic."