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Heavenly pairings of mooncakes and wine
By John H. Isacs

THE Mid-Autumn Festival is so synonymous with mooncakes that I have even heard friends refer to this important holiday as the Mooncake Festival. These beloved treats are delectable by themselves but when paired with the proper wine they reach new levels of epicurean delight.

The traditional festival is one of the most ancient and important Chinese holidays. The first written account dates back 3,000 years ago to the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-770 BC) when a collection of rituals named “Rites of Zhou” was composed.

Most historians believe the festival is actually much more ancient, dating back to the earliest periods of the Xia (c. 21st century-16th century BC) and Shang (c. 16th century-11th century BC) dynasties. The first written records of mooncakes date back 1,500 years, but as with the holiday, the history of mooncakes is most likely much older.

Today the stylistic breath of mooncakes is nearly endless. Thankfully, the style of wines to match these treats is equally diverse.

Sweet mooncakes, sweet wine

Mooncakes commonly have a sweet lotus seed paste or red bean paste filling and a outer pastry that’s flaky or chewy. These sweet mooncakes are undeniably delicious but there’s one drawback when we savor these treats, successive mouthfuls often leaves the palate overly sweet and somewhat sticky.

The ideal solution is a glass of semi-sweet sparkling wine. The sparkling wine should have enough sweetness to match the sweetness of the mooncake and also offer good acidity or freshness to cleanse the palate.

Two sparklers that wonderfully perform this task include Spanish CAVA Freixenet Carta Nevada Semi Seco and the Antech Cuvee Elegance Demi-Sec from Limoux in the south of France. Both wines have the requisite touch of sweetness to harmonize with the sweet filling of the mooncakes and the acidity to refresh your palates and facilitate digestion. The stimulating bubbles in these wines also act a pleasant mouth cleanser.

The levels of sweetness of the mooncake filling also dictate the ideal wine companion. The sweetest of mooncakes benefit from an equally sweet wine. Two sweet wines that admirably augment the flavors and textures of the sweetest of mooncakes are lightly-sparkling Moscato d’Asti wines from Piedmont in northwestern Italy and Pedro Ximenez Sherries from Jerez in southwestern Spain.

Moscato d’Asti wines are Piedmont charmers that feature an abundance of perfumed aromas, honey and sweet fruit flavors to nicely mirror the sweetness of the mooncakes. These semi-sparklers also provide an underlying freshness to offset the sweet, dense filling of the mooncakes while the light bubbles delightfully tickle your palate.

Another attractive element of Moscato d’Asti wines is that they’re quite affordable. A trio of excellent examples that are easy to find in Shanghai include Pio Cesare Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Michele Chiarlo Moscato d’Asti Nivole DOCG and Antinori Prunotto Moscato d’Asti DOCG.

If you have never tasted a Pedro Ximenez Sherry, then you’re really missing one of the world’s greatest sweet wines.

Made from sundried Pedro Ximenez grapes, this is a dark, mahogany-colored wine with very concentrated sweet aromas and flavors of raisins and spices.

The sweetness of the wine is balanced by good acidity that make this wine an ideal companion to the sweetest mooncakes.

I found that the spice sensations in Pedro Ximenez Sherries also add intriguing flavor dimensions to mooncakes. Excellent Pedro Ximenez Sherries are made by the Bodegas Gonzalez Byass, Williams & Humbert, Jose Estevez, Sanchez Romante and Lustau.

Not all mooncakes have sweet fillings. Salty mooncakes stuffed with ham, barbecue pork, chicken, duck, salty egg yolk and other non-sweet ingredients are also popular. These mooncakes commonly have a lard-based pastry.

Savory mooncakes

The combination of meat and lard begs for a fresh red wine. At the top of my list for pairing with salty, meat-filled mooncakes are well-made, fresh Chianti wines from Tuscany.

Chianti wines are predominantly made from the versatile Sangiovese grape. These rather light, fresh wines cut right through the lard and meatiness of the mooncakes and accentuate the original favors.

While the overall quality of Chianti wines has greatly improved, you still have to be careful when choosing these wines. Four good value, sure bets readily available in Shanghai are the Ruffino Chianti DOCG, Marchesi de Frescobaldi Castiglioni Chianti DOCG, Antinori Santa Cristina Chianti Superiore DOCG and Castello di Querceto Chianti DOCG.

Additional good candidates to pair with salty mooncakes are young Burgundies like the Domaine Bachelet Monnot Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Domaine de Montile Bougogne Pinot Noir, and Louis Jadot Cotes de Beaune Villages.

When pairing mooncakes with these fresh reds, remember to chill the wines. The best taste attributes of these wines are achieved at 14-16 degrees Celsius.

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