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The perfect wine for Chinese ham hock
By John H. Isacs

I adore pork. Save for those who have noble moral or religious reasons, I can’t imagine there exists a true food lover who doesn’t salivate over the delicious delicacy that is pork.

The Suidae genus to which the pigs belong gradually developed during the post-dinosaur Tertiary era when the diversity of mammals exploded. Epicurean historians are split over where exactly the first pigs were domesticated for meat. Most studies indicate that peoples in China or the Near East were the first to domesticate pigs about 10,000 years ago. Since these early times pork has become a staple meat in many of the world’s greatest cuisines.

This week’s iDeal section focuses on Chinese dishes feturing the ham hock or pork knuckle. Technically, this cut of pork is the joint between the tibula or fibula and the foot metatarsals where the foot is linked to the leg. The combination of skin, meat, tendons and ligaments necessitates long and slow cooking but when done properly the results are delectable. The Chinese are not alone in their love of the ham hock.

The northern German Eisbein and Bavarian Schweinshaxe are practically national institutions. Polish Golonka, Austrian Stelze and Swiss Wadli dishes all make delicious use of this cut of pork. Ham hocks are also popular in the south and mid states of the United States.


Chinese style

There are numerous ham hock preparations in Chinese cuisine, but two of the most famous are Dong Po stewed pork knuckle and Wansan pork shank. The former dish is named after the poet and politician Su Dongpo from Meishan in Sichuan province who prospered in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). He was also an accomplished painter, calligrapher, pharmacologist and — most germane to this column — a renowned gourmet.

In fact, among Su’s and his family literati productions are numerous recipes including one that has evolved into the popular Dongpo stewed pork knuckle. Modern renditions vary, but basically a pig’s knuckle is slowly stewed and then steamed, before a zesty stir-fried concoction of oil with ten or more spices is poured over the knuckle. The more sauce you use, the stronger the flavor of the dish.

Wansan pork shank is another signature Chinese ham hock dish. Shen Wansan was a businessman and member of one of Eastern China’s most affluent families. Living at the very end of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and the advent of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) he always considered the town of Zhouzhuang home. Sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the East” this picturesque town linked by canals in Jiangsu has a profound history of culture including a rich tradition of gastronomy.

Wansan pork shank, named after the businessman, is not an average or everyday dish, but seen as a centerpiece dish for important occasions including weddings and seasonal celebrations. Slowly stewed in a pot and flavored with special spices and herbs, then sliced and topped with fresh herbs, this is an exceedingly succulent and flavorful dish. About the only thing more delicious than savoring Dongpo and Wansan style pork knuckles is doing so with a few glasses of synergistic wine.

Wine partners

Pork is an extremely wine friendly meat. Depending on the preparation technique and seasonings, light to full bodied sparkling, white and red wines may all be fine partners. Fatty cuts of pork benefit from acidic and/or tannic wines as these qualities cut through the fat, cleanse the palate and facilitate digestion. In the specific cases of Dongpo pork knuckle and Wansan pork shank I’d recommend a fairly robust and fruity Pinot Noir with good freshness. Young Pinots from Burgundy, Northern Italy and the New World are all fine choices as are Cru level Beaujolais made from the Gamay grape. But when the Dongpo and Wansan seasonings are prominent in the dish, one style of Pinot Noir stands out.

Central Otago may or may not be the world’s most southern wine region as many of my friends from New Zealand claim. Chile also has vineyards that claim this distinction. It doesn’t really matter who’s right; Central Otago is so far south that it climate is among the world’s most extreme for wine. Only the most fearless of winemakers brave the extreme diurnal temperatures and frequent wild weather of this elevated continental climate. It is quite unique in New Zealand and the world and when things go right (and this is a big if) the result is some of the most expressive and delicious Pinot Noir wines found anywhere.

The concentrated, richly fruity, fresh and tannic qualities of many Pinots from Central Otago stands up to the strong flavors of Chinese style pork knuckles while embellishing the natural flavors of the meat. In short, they’re perfectly synergistic partners, each helping the other taste better.

In Shanghai there are several excellent Pinots from Central Otago. One of my favorites is Rippon, an estate managed by Joe and Nick Mills who collectively have extensive experience making wines at some of Burgundy’s most famous Domaines including Romanee-Conti, Nicolas Potel, Albert Mann and Aubert de Villaine. Three of their wonderful red wines are available in Shanghai, the Mature Vine Pinot Noir, Emma’s Block Mature Vine Pinot Noir and Tinker’s Field Pinot Noir. All three are among the most intense, pure, textured and elegant New World Pinots.

Another top Central Otago producer is Felton Road. Their Bannockburn, Calvert, Block 3 and Block 5 Pinots are less overtly fruity than many of New Zealand’s reds but more balanced with good acidic and tannic backbones. Other recommended producers are Mt Difficulty, Forrest and Craggy Range.

If Su Dongpo had a glass of this beautiful Central Otago Pinot Noir to accompany his signature dish, what words of wisdom might have sprung from his pen?

Where to buy in Shanghai

Region & style at a glance


Pinot Noir is the star variety of Central Otago and, due to the extreme climate of the region, the result is usually concentrated and robust Pinots; top level Sauvignon Blanc and other aromatic whites.

Key term:

Backbone is the term used to describe a wine with a strong and balanced structure between alcohol, acidity and/or tannins.

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