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Wines for traditional or Shanghainese feasts
By John H. Isacs

SOON Christmas will be upon us with families of various backgrounds joyously gathering throughout Shanghai to celebrate the most important Western holiday.

For some this is a spiritual day for reflection while for others it's an occasion to eat and drink with abandon. The important role of food and wine during the Christmas holiday is well documented and over the years certain foods have become standard fare on the Christmas table.

All you need to do is looking at our newspaper to see the endless offerings of turkey, ham and other favored Christmas fare.

While there's nothing wrong with traditional dishes, to be different, I'll suggest some inspired Shanghai-themed wining and dining ideas.

Old Shanghai inspiration

The best meals and celebrations always require a certain amount of inspiration. Over the past century and a half, our city of Shanghai has been home to some of the most sumptuous and creative Christmas lunches and dinners ever held.

Why not try and relive some of these great feasts by featuring some of the same dishes and wines of past celebrations? Not only will you enjoy great food and wines but you can regale your family and friends with entertaining tales of the past.

In the early years after the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, new Western families in Shanghai longed for the traditional dishes of their homes.

There exist many copies of old letters that mention Western families in Shanghai in the mid-19th century enjoying Christmas meals with foods quite similar to those enjoyed in their homelands. The English had their humble pie, a mixture of venison or other meat with liver brains and other organs as well as plum pudding that comprised boiled beef or mutton with prunes wine and spices.

English and German families also enjoyed roasted goose and other fowl, dishes that are readily available today and perhaps more palatable to modern tastes.

Carp was also a popular Christmas dish for many continental Europeans and it's easy to find today.

Unfortunately, we don't have documented evidence of the wines that graced 19th-century Christmas tables in Shanghai but based on early shipping documents we know the city already had plenty bottles of red Bordeaux and white German Riesling wines.

Should you wish to revive the feasts of 19th-century Shanghai, then I recommend you enjoy a nice German Riesling like Joh Jos Prum Graacher Himmelreich Kabinett or Gustave Lorentz Riesling Altenberg. Both wines would go equally well with the carp, goose or water fowl.

If humble pie or plum pudding is on your menu, then I suggest sticking to a sturdy and structured Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux like Chateau Meyney or Chateau Lillian-Ladouys. Both wines have the weight and concentration to stand up to the tasty classic English fare.

By the swinging 1920s and 1930s, Western families in Shanghai were often joined by Chinese families in celebrating Christmas.

Famed triad boss Du Yuesheng, also referred to as big-eared Du, hosted large Christmas parties for senior European and Chinese officials where a mixture of Western and Chinese dishes were served with expensive French and other European wines.

Dressed in his Chinese silk gown, Du lavishly entertained the who's who of Shanghai society, including famed movie idol Ruan Lingyu and "Golden Voice" Zhou Xuan, who both suffered tragic early deaths.

Tycoon Sir Victor Sassoon held extravagant costume parties over the Christmas holiday that always featured an abundance of Champagne and caviar.

Hedonistic Shanghai during the 1920s and 1930s may have been a fools' paradise, but they did throw some fun and delicious parties.

There's no shortage of Champagne today in Shanghai and it's the perfect drink to accompany the mixed Western and Chinese cuisines at Du's parties and the caviar of Sassoon's parties. I have no proof, but a wine-loving Chinese professor once told me Gosset Champagnes were frequently served at Sassoon's parties.

Creative Shanghai feast

If historic recreations are not your thing, than another great way to celebrate Christmas this year is savoring Shanghai cooking with the increasing number of quality Chinese-made wines.

A properly prepared Shanghai-themed Christmas dinner is sure to please even the most discerning of Chinese and Western epicureans. The abundance of heavy and flavorful dishes in Shanghai cuisine makes this style of cooking perfect for the cold weather during Christmas holiday and there are a plethora of synergistic dish and wine pairings to work magic on your palate.

Classic cold starters like salted chicken and cooked seafood favorites like stir-fried baby river shrimp, steamed reeves shad and stir-fried river eels in brown sauce are lovely companions to what is perhaps the best Chinese white wine, the Symphony Muscat.

This dry Muscat white wine is a joint venture between the Spanish company Torres and Grace Vineyard in central China's Shanxi Province and offers bountiful yellow fruit and floral qualities with firm acidic backbone that's perfect for the salted chicken and seafood.

Taya's Reserve Chardonnay, also from Grace Vineyard, would be another nice Chinese-inspired choice.

When the classic Shanghai meat dishes like stewed pork in red sauce and lion's head meat balls appear on the table, it's time to serve red wines.

Some of my favorite Chinese red wines are Grace Vineyard's Tasya's Reserve Cabernet Franc, a hearty red with slightly herbaceous notes, and Chairman's Reserve, a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc blend with rich dark fruit flavors and soft tannins.

Silver Heights is another top domestic producer. On the eastern slopes of Mount Helan in the Ningxa Hui Autonomous Region, the vineyards of Silver Heights are located at an altitude of 1,200 meters, providing a beneficial combination of bright sunny days and cool evenings during the growing season.

The Family Reserve and The Summit are both Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischt and Cabernet Franc blends from Silver Heights that feature good concentration, structure and persistence.

All four of the aforementioned Chinese red wines are excellent examples of the potential of China to make very good wines.

They, along with the two whites from Grace Vineyard, are also the perfect wines to serve at your Shanghainese feast this Christmas Eve or Day.

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