Behold the humble dumpling! These culinary marvels evolved independently in many gourmet cultures as a practical and delicious way to stretch a small portion of meat, fish or other savory or sweet ingredient. From the banku, tihlo and kenkey of Africa to the ravioli, gnocchi and tortellini of Italy and the somosa, ada and karanji of India, dumplings made in innumerable ways permeate all major cuisines. But the first dumplings were most likely made in China where this beloved food is much more than just an appetite pleaser.
During the Chinese New Year, dumplings are a social food symbolizing reunion and prosperity. From family participation in making the dumplings to their collective consumption, there’s a harmonious and communal atmosphere. The importance of the dumpling in Chinese New year celebrations can’t be overstated.
Whether it’s the classic Shandong steamed dumpling or fried jiaozi that’s sometimes referred to as a potsticker in English, xiaolongbao in Eastern China, or wontons and siewmai in Southern China, dumplings are Chinese culinary treasures.
In savory Chinese dumplings, pork is the most common meat filling but lamb, beef, chicken and duck are also commonly used. Shrimp and fish are also popular ingredients with cabbage, chives, leeks, ginger, onions, mushrooms and other vegetables as well as starches part of the filling mixture.
While a superfluity of dumpling types exist, in this week’s column I focus on the best wines for savory meat or seafood dumplings, as these are the most likely to adorn your Chinese New Year table.
The perfect dumpling wine should be fresh, fruity and red. Why red? Because both the color red and dumplings denote prosperity, and this symbolism is especially important during the Chinese New Year. I have the perfect wine.
One of Italy’s most food friendly red wines, Chianti has all the attributes of a great companion to savory meat and seafood dumplings. This Sangiovese based wine commonly offers ample red cherry, strawberry and floral qualities with a good acidic backbone. Of
particular significance to the Chinese New Year holiday: It sports a bright ruby red color. More serious and weighty Riserva Chiantis are indeed fine wines but their greater viscosity and strength would overwhelm many styles of dumplings, so I advise sticking to the lighter fresher Chinati DOCG or Chianti Classico DOCG wines. Like the dumpling, this seemingly simple wine has a noble history.
Early versions of Chianti ranged for light rose wines to more brutish reds, then in mid-19th century the great Iron Baron Ricasoli created the first official formula for Chianti. The Baron stipulated that Chianti wines should be mostly Sangiovese with the local varieties Canaiolo and Malvasia also allowed. The great grandson of the Iron Baron, Francesco Ricasoli is still making excellent Chianti, Chianti Classico and other wines today. But the road to success hasn’t been an easy one for Chianti wines.
After the late 19th century phylloxera epidemic and the two World Wars in the first half of the 20th century, many producers emphasized quantity over quality and bottled their wines in squat straw bound bottles. These cute little bottles hid a nasty secret
inside, an insipid low quality wine. Indeed, many Italians called these bottles “fiasco,” which according to the dictionary appropriately means a complete failure. The damage to the Chianti brand was severe. However, all of this started to change in 1966 with the implementation of the DOC regulations. Since then the quality of Chianti wines has improved dramatically. In 1996 Chianti wines achieved the coveted DOCG status.
At the top of the Chianti pyramid the Riserva and Gran Selezione wines are some of Italy’s best red wines. The most reliable way to achieve Chianti success is to choose wines from top producers like Mazzei, Ricasoli, Strozzi, Carpeneto, Ruffino and Castello di Querceto.
Returning to Chianti’s affinity for Chinese dumplings, I suggest pairing more mild shrimp or fish dumplings with a standard Chianti wine as the bright acidity in these wines accentuates the freshness of the ingredients. More meaty or earthy pork, beef and mushroom dumplings are best with slightly more weighty Chianti Classico or Superiore wines.
There’s another reason to love Chianti, as this wine region is among
the most beautiful in the world. The rugged natural beauty of the rolling hills are spotted with vineyard and ancient hilltop castles and villas. From the majestic 10th century Brolio Castle that overlooks the Barone Ricasoli winery to the 1,000 year old Villa Cusona of the Guicciardini-Strozzi family, the noble winemakers of Chianti have some of the world’s most resplendently beautiful wineries.