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Mooncakes call for heavenly wines
By John H. Isacs

THE Mid-Autumn Festival is fast approaching, and our culinary thoughts are turning toward the delectable mooncakes.

Traditionally enjoyed with Chinese tea, these tasty treats reach even greater culinary heights when paired with the proper wines.

Before we examine the best wines to pair with mooncakes, let's take a look into the fascinating history of the mooncakes.

Ancient cakes

The first written account of the Mid-Autumn Festival appears in the "Rites of Zhou," a collection of rituals from the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-770 BC) 3,000 years ago. Many historians believe the festival is actually older, dating back to the earlier Xia (c. 21st century-16th century) and Shang (c. 16th century-11th century) dynasties.

The first accounts of mooncakes date back 1,500 years, but many believe they were popular holiday treats as far back as the late Western Zhou Dynasty.

How the mooncakes actually evolved through Chinese history is still somewhat a mystery but their importance in Chinese culture is not.

Mooncakes have also been credited with helping to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

Loyalists from earlier preceding Song Dynasty (960-1279) were anxious to overthrow the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty and, knowing that the Mongols didn't eat mooncakes, they came up with the creative plan to hide secret messages inside the pastries.

These cryptic notes instructed the Chinese to raise en mass against the foreign rulers on the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese lunar calendar. The successful rebellion resulted in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Since then, mooncakes have been an essential part of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

Sweet mooncakes

The most popular mooncakes have a sweet lotus seed paste or red bean paste that makes them natural companions to sweet and off-sweet wines.

Whether the outer pastry is flaky or chewy, the dense sweet lotus seed or red been fillings beg for a wine to accent and distinguish the natural flavors and facilitate digestion.

Personally, I prefer a Demi Sec Champagne or sparkling wine that has the sweetness to complement the filling but also the acidity to cleanse the palate. Some good examples of these wines you can find in Shanghai are Gosset Demi-Sec Champagne, Veuve Cliquot Demi-Sec and Caves de Bailly Cremant Demi Sec.

Equally good with sweet mooncakes are the slightly sparkling Moscato d'Asti wines from northern Italy.

These Piedmont charmers feature an abundance of perfumed aromas and sweet fruit flavors to nicely mirror the sweetness of the mooncakes while also providing an underlying freshness to cleanse your palate of the sweet, dense filling.

Salty mooncakes

The Moscato d'Asti sweet wines are also great accompaniments with other mooncakes with sweet fillings like dates, walnuts, mung bean, pumpkin seeds, almonds and other ingredients.

The savory qualities of salty mooncakes make them perfect partners for a medium-body red wine with moderate tannins and good acidity.

Salty mooncakes, especially those that have pastries made with lard, greatly benefit from the proper red wine. Whether your mooncake has a meat, salty egg or nut filling, a young Pinot Noir from Burgundy, New Zealand or the Pacific Northwest will bring out the best savory qualities of the mooncake while also providing some very welcome digestive assistance.

Young Burgundy Pinot Noirs from Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin and Domaine de Montile are all delicious and affordable wines to pair with salty meat mooncakes.

For New Zealand Pinots, try wines from Kim Crawford, Mud House and Villa Maria, while Chateau Ste Michelle offers one of Washington State's better Pinot Noir wines.

A Hong Kong-style chewy skinned mooncake with barbecue pork filling is simply delightful with an Italian Barbera red wine from Piedmont.

Good Barberas have plenty of red fruit to add flavor dimensions to the pork filling while also providing a good dose of acidity to cut through the heaviness of the pork and chewy pasty.

Likewise a mooncake with Jinhua ham in the filling pairs nicely with a Barbera or young Pinot Noir.

In addition to the beloved traditional styles of mooncakes, there are increasingly more creative new styles that incorporate new ingredients and cooking techniques.

Modern cakes

Taiwan is one of the hot spots of avant-garde mooncakes, which incorporate popular ingredients like green tea, chocolate, taro and even tiramisu. Trendy restaurants and hotels on the island sell ornately decorated gift packs of mooncakes with a variety of non-traditional ingredients.

Some mooncakes are entirely ice cream while others are all chocolate and have led traditionalists to lament that they are not mooncakes at all.

With these new and sometimes funky mooncakes, I suggest you play it safe with a traditional sweet fortified wine like Port or Sherry.

In the world of sweets, these two fortified wines are the most flexible and pair better with a wider range of sweets than any other wines in the world.

So I invite you to look up at the full and beautiful moon, savor your mooncakes and sip a truly heavenly wine.

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