DEPENDING on the subject matter, some newspaper columns practically write themselves. This is certainly not the case when one is asked to write about Central Asia and wine. So it was with some trepidation that I set about composing this week’s column.
Nonetheless, with some research and persistence, a few interesting story lines developed. Before delving into the subject, let’s try and define Central Asia.
The more narrow geographical definition of Central Asia comprises the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Some include Afghanistan, while others place the country in South Asia.
Collectively, the five consensus Central Asian countries comprise around 76 million people and are sometimes colloquially referred to as The Stans, which in local dialects means “the land of.”
A more expansive definition of Central Asia takes into account the wider diasporas of related peoples as well as ethnic and cultural factors and, therefore, includes parts of Mongolia, northern and western Pakistan, northeastern Iran, Kashmir, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in western China, and southern Siberia in Russia.
Traditionally the people and cultures of Central Asia have been associated with a nomadic lifestyle, something definitely not conducive to winemaking or wine culture.
However, the region is also historically closely tied to the Silk Road that linked the peoples of the Far East with the Near East and Europe. Thus, Central Asia was an important crossroads for trade and the movement of peoples and ideas. This included the art of winemaking.
When I first undertook the task of learning about wine many decades ago, experts believed winemaking began 3,500-4,000 years ago, perhaps in Iran, the Middle East or even Egypt. They were wrong.
While we still don’t know where wine was first made, the oldest archeological evidence comes from right here in China. The 9,000-year-old jars with remnants of fermented grapes were found in the village of Jiahu in central China.
Biomolecular archeologist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology who examined the jars believes winemaking is actually even older, dating back to the later Neolithic Period around 11,000 years ago when pottery was first made.
Much more widespread evidence of winemaking appears in the Near East. A great deal of archeological evidence dating from 7,000-8,000 years ago has been recovered from sites in Georgia, Armenia, northern Iran and southeastern Turkey.
In all likelihood, either China or a Near Asian country first made wine, while Central Asia served as an important wine trade crossroads between the Near East and Far East.
In fact, it was the Turkish Uygurs who were responsible for reintroducing viticulture to China during the early Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). So while the ancient nomads of Central Asia didn’t discover winemaking, they played an important role in facilitating the propagation of the art of winemaking to the far corners of the Euro-Asian land mass.
The former Soviet Union was no friend to winemaking. Vodka displaced wines as the preferred drink in many of the union’s republics. Despite this, Central Asian cuisine is remarkably wine-friendly.
There’s no better place to start than with meat.
The ancient nomads who lived in Central Asia lived on mostly meat and dairy products. The diets of modern-day inhabitants of this region reflect this with mutton, horse and beef being the favored meats. Allow me to take a stab (pun intended) at matching some of Central Asia’s most popular meat dishes with wines you can find in Shanghai.
Besbarmak is the most popular traditional Kazakhstan dish consisting of large chunks of horse meat, or sometimes mutton, boiled in a large pot. It is sometimes referred to as “five fingers” because the big pieces of boiled meat are eaten with the hands. This dish is also popular in Xinjiang where it’s referred to as narin. The meat is usually served over handmade noodles flavored with parsley and coriander.
I’ve actually had this dish in a Kyrgyz restaurant in New York City though the meat was mutton and not horse. The perfect wine for this hearty boiled meat dish turned out to be a Grand Cru Classe Saint-Emilion red wine, since the gentle tannins of the wine nicely cut through the fat in the meat while not overpowering the more subtle flavors of the dish.
Four very good and quite affordable Grand Cru Saint-Emilion wines that are easy to fine in Shanghai are Chateaux Haut-Brisson, Paran-Justice, Balastradle Tonnelle and Cap du Mourlin.
Should you be fortunate enough to savor a besbarmak made with horse, then a red wine with good acidity would be an ideal companion. On several occasions in France, I’ve successfully paired young Burgundy and Southern Rhone reds with horse meat.
As horse meat tends to be sweeter than beef, the freshness of these wines nicely offsets the sweetness of the meat while accentuating the fine texture. Good examples of Italian Valpolicella and Sangiovese wines would also be excellent companions.
Palav, sometimes also called osh, is one of the most popular dishes in Tajikistan. This predominantly rice dish includes shredded carrots and turnips, chunks of horse meat or mutton that are fried together in animal fat.
Think of it as a very tasty paella with much more meat and no seafood. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a good Spanish Tempranillo is a fine partner. I suggest a medium-bodied Crianza from good Rioja producers like Roda, Real Divisa, Luis Canas and Ramirez de la Piscina.
Uzbek cuisine features a delicious soup called shurpa that’s made of large pieces of fatty mutton and fresh vegetables. This soup may also be served with various meat kebabs and stuffed breads.
There are actually over a dozen wineries in Uzbekistan so if you’re clever or lucky enough to get your hands on a bottle, then they would make intriguing partners with Uzbek dishes. A few years ago I tasted a bottle of Samarkand Winery Cabernet Sauvignon that was quite pleasant. Unfortunately it wasn’t paired with shurpa.