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Wine embellishes classic Chinese dishes
By John H. Isacs

We’re all fortunate to live or stay in Shanghai and experience the genius of Chinese cuisine. We’re even more privileged when these Chinese culinary classics meet synergistic wines.

There are those who offer that beer and tea are perhaps more natural companions to the diverse styles of Chinese cuisine. Yet I don’t give even a modicum of credence to these beer and tea loving naysayers. The simple truth is that wine is always better.

Last week I was in Beijing where I gave four wine seminars and conducted tastings at the Beijing Topwine event. I was heartened by the positive feedback from my audience and in particular pleased by their enthusiasm on my wine and Chinese cuisine food pairing suggestions.

In this week’s column I’ll examine some wonderful wine and classic Chinese dish pairings. Fresh back from the capital, let’s start with one of northern China’s most admired culinary treasures.

Peking duck

Precious few dishes attract such international acclaim as Peking duck. This intricate dish is truly one of the shining glories of Chinese cuisine. The combination of quality ingredients, expert preparation, eye-catching presentation and of course delicious flavors and appealing textures never fails to impress. The dish by itself is lovely, but when accompanied by the proper wine it becomes perfection.

One of the best wine styles to pair with Peking Duck is a nice rose sparkler. The bubbles, ample red fruit characteristics and freshness of these wines both accentuate the flavors and textures of the duck meat, skin, scallion, sweet sauce and pancake while also mitigating any greasiness.

On the high-end you may choose a Champagne or Franciacorta rose, but you can also spend less and still get excellent results with a Spanish CAVA or French Cremant rose. Two budget beating rose sparklers that are sure to enhance your Peking duck experience are the Freixenet Brut Rose CAVA and the vintage Antech Emotion Cremant de Limoux Rose.

Peking duck also benefits from a concentrated and hearty red wine. The deliciously fruity and tannic wines of Ribera del Duero fit the bill. With only about 250 wineries, Ribera del Duero is quite modest in scale and size. The wines however are anything but modest and must be considered among the best of Spain. This is red wine territory where Tinta del Pais, the local name for Tempranillo, is king. In Ribera del Duro, the Tempranillo grapes are particularly thick-skinned, aromatic and have a high polyphenol concentration. This results in powerful wines.

The legendary Vega Sicilia and similarly renowned Ribera del Duero producers like Dominio de Pingus, Bodegas Alion and Tinto Pesquera all call this region home. These are great wines, albeit with great prices. Also excellent, but more affordable are the wines of Bodegas Valdubon. From the budget Valdubon Cosecha to the exquisite, limited edition Valdubon Honorus, this winery has a range of delicious red wine solutions for Peking duck.

Stinky tofu

Other Ribera del Duero reds with good price-value ratios are Torres Celeste and Telmo Rodriguez M2 de Matallana Cosecha. Except for 2002, most recent vintages of Ribera del Duero have been good to excellent. These big Spanish reds benefit from 30 to 60 minutes of breathing time.

If ever a Chinese dish cried out for a wine partner, its stinky bean curd. Contrary to what you may think, matching this pungent snack with wine is remarkably easy. All that needs to be done is borrow ideas from the experience of Europeans in matching stinky cheeses with wine.

Whether its English Stilton, French Roquefort or Italian Gorgonzola, these cheeses are always best with balanced sweet wines. Sweet wines with a good acidic backbone effectively offset the pungent flavors of the tofu while balancing and freshening the palate. One style that nobly achieves this is Moscato d’Asti, the richly perfumed sweet lightly sparkling wine from Piedmont in Italy.

These sweet and abundantly fruity wines also mitigate the spiciness of the chili sauce that often accompanies stinky tofu. Fine examples available in Shanghai include Michele Chiaro Moscato d’Asti DOCG and Banfi Moscato d’Asti DOCG. These wines are best enjoyed young and well chilled.

Having lived in Taiwan for many years, I not surprisingly developed a taste for the island’s renowned street foods. Not least among these is the popular deep fried chicken morsels call yansuji (盐酥鸡). Granted this humble Taiwan snack doesn’t really qualify as a Chinese classic, but I love it nonetheless.

Small pieces of lightly battered chicken and chicken parts are deep-fried in oil and liberally sprinkled with salt, pepper, chili powder and served with basil. Almost every part of the chicken is on offer but I must confess the sweet and greasy chicken asses served on a skewer are the most sinfully delicious.

There are precious few late night snacks as satisfying as yansuji, especially when enjoyed with a Prosecco sparkler or red wine like Barbera d’Asti from Piedmont. The fruity and fresh nature of these Italian wines assuages the greasiness of the deep-fried chicken and chicken parts while accentuating the savory qualities of the meat.

I’ve been told some yansuji stands have been popping up in Shanghai. If you get a chance to savor these bite sized treats, don’t forget to bring a bottle of Prosecco or Barbara d’Asti. Fine examples of Prosecco include La Tordera Aine Millesimato Extra Dry, Dogarino Extra Dry and Villa Sandi Valdobbiadene DOCG.

Where to buy in Shanghai

El Pomposo (Rm 408, 4/F, 999 Huaihai Rd M., 6025-8990)

JW Marriott (399 Nanjing Rd W., 5359-4969)
Bodegas Valdubon Ribera del Duero wines

Market 101 by Goga (1226 Changle Rd, 5888-3101)
La Tordera Aine Millesimato Extra Dry L’Armangia Sopra Berruti Barbera d’Asti DOCG

Freixenet Shanghai (196 Taiyuan Rd, 3401-0907)
Freixenet Brut Rose CAVA

Wine Residence (55 Urumuqi Rd S., 3423-9599)
Telmo Rodriguez M2 de Matallana Cosecha; Banfi Moscato d’Asti;
Michele Chiaro Barbera d’Asti Le Orme DOCG

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164