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Pair sweet Sauternes with sweet dumplings
By John H. Isacs

FOR me, any day is a good day to enjoy quality wine, but some days offer an opportunity to integrate diverse culinary cultures with wine. The Lantern Festival, also commonly referred to as Yuanxiao Jie in Mandarin, is one such day.

The exact origin of the Lantern Festival is not known but the tradition is thousands of years old.

One popular legend tells of a magnificent crane descending from Heaven to Earth only to be abruptly killed and eaten by villagers.

The Jade Emperor in Heaven didn't take kindly to his favorite crane becoming a dish for mortals so he angrily decreed that the village should be burned to the ground.

For reasons unknown, the daughter of the Jade Emperor warned the villagers of their imminent doom and panic soon took hold.

A wise man from a neighboring village came up with a plan to fool the Jade Emperor by having all the villagers hang red lanterns outside their homes and set bonfires on the streets to make it appear as if the village was burning.

On the 15th day of the lunar calendar, the celestial troops sent to raze the village saw the fires and returned to Heaven reporting that the village was already burned to the ground.

The Jade Emperor fell for their ruse and, in gratitude for their good fortune, the villagers made this lantern hanging an annual event.

Other legends tell of a homesick servant of an emperor in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) named Yuanxiao who longed for a family reunion.

Depending on the version of the tale, either Yuanxiao or an adviser to the emperor hatched a scheme to make the emperor and his subjects believe the imperial city would be set ablaze by a super natural being riding a red horse.

The emperor told his subjects to hang lanterns and set fireworks on the streets to appease the God of Fire and also prepare sweet dumplings said to be favored by this god. In the chaos Yuanxiao was able to briefly reunite with her parents.

Since the sweet glutinous dumplings, also known as tang yuan, have become the signature food of the Lantern Festival, one perfectly delicious way to enjoy the holiday is pairing these treats with an elegant sweet wine. Arguably the most elegant of all sweet wines are Sauternes.

Sauternes is a region in Graves that is located 40 kilometers southwest of the city of Bordeaux.

It is also one of the very few places on this earth where a combination of factors often leads to grapes being infected by Botrytis Cinerea, more affectionately known as noble rot.

The most important grape in making Sauternes sweet wines is Semillon, which in the proper climatic conditions is prone to become infested with fungus that causes the grapes to rot and lose much of their water content.

These precious rotten raisins are used to make some of the world's greatest sweet wines, including the world's most famous and expensive sweet wine Chateau d'Yquem.

Sauternes like most of the Bordeaux region enjoys a maritime climate with two rivers bordering and intersecting the region.

In most vintages, the warmer waters of the Garonne River that flows to the Atlantic and its cooler tributary the Ciron River interact to form a mist that envelops the vines of Sauternes.

From the late evening to early morning the moisture coating the grapes helps activates dormant spores of the Botrytis Cinerea fungus.

The morning and afternoon sun then dissipates the moisture and dries the grapes thereby preventing the development of the more destructive gray rot fungus.

This rather complex process that leads to the noble rot doesn't happen every year.

In years when there is no rot most producers of Sauternes make rather ordinary dry white wines under generic Bordeaux AOC labels.

Sauternes has also experienced its share of scandals and questionable practices. Because noble rot is not a given, in every vintage some producers have used sulfur to stop the fermentation and retain more sweetness.

A more accepted yet still controversial process is cry-extraction where grape are frozen to eliminate water and concentrate sweetness.

This process in some ways resembles the natural process for making ice wines.

Sauternes specifically and sweet wines in general have become somewhat less fashionable in the west and thus relatively affordable.

Except for the incomparable Chateau d'Yquem, the one and only Premier Cru Superieur, many excellent Sauternes wines are available at reasonable, though not cheap prices.

I highly recommend the Premier Crus Chateaux Climens, de Rayne Vigneau, La Tour-Blance, Suduiraut and Coutet as well as the Duexiemes Crus Chateaux d'Arche, Caillon, Fihot and Nairac.

Big Bordeaux brands like Mouton, Ginestet, Bernard Magrez also make some quite affordable and drinkable Sauternes sourced from contracted chateaux in Sauternes.

One of the rather convenient delights that our increasingly integrated modern world offers us is combining two distinct gourmet delights into one harmonious experience.

Pairing tang yuan with sweet fillings with a Sauternes wine is an excellent example.

One tried and true tenet in wine and food pairing is that when serving wine with a dessert, your wine should be slightly sweeter than your dessert.

This is certainly the case when tang yuan meets Sauternes.

Most tang yuan have sweet to off-sweet fillings of sesame, red bean and walnut pastes or other fillings that are served in a sweet soup.

Typical flavors you expect to find in good Sauternes wines are apricots, honey, peaches and nuts that are natural companions to the sweet flavors and sticky texture of the dumplings.

The beautiful balance between the intense sweetness and zesty acidity in Sauternes wines not only accentuates the flavors of the rice balls but also cleanses and refreshes the palate.

Upon hearing that I would write on tang yuan and Sauternes wines for this week's column, a French chef said he was inspired to make tang yuan filled with goose liver.

Gourmets should hardly be surprised by my friend's inspiration as the combination of rich and savory goose liver with sweet and acidic Sauternes is one of the greatest classic pairings in French cuisine.

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