“I’m not sure there is yet a culture for drinking wine in China. But it will come,” says renowned wine connoisseur and author Gerald Asher, whose new book, “Carafe of Red,” will be published next month.
Rice wine has traditionally been the Chinese diner’s beverage of choice. But can Western wines be substituted? Asher believes that some are more than up to the challenge.
“I think rice wine suits the Chinese palate because it is savory,” he says. “There isn’t a flavor of the kind we would get in a fruit-based fermented beverage. What you do get are the flavors that arise from fermentation, those we call wine’s secondary aromas. Rice wine also has this little kind of nutty fermentation flavor, and I think that, too, is appreciated by the Chinese palate.”
FOR CHINESE FOODS
Wine authority Gerald Asher shares his expertise.
The Chinese approach to food is sophisticated. “I suppose it’s something you would expect from an old culture,” Asher says, and it explains the appeal of the “complex flavors” in dried or fermented ingredients. “Wine, once it’s beyond its phase of primary fruit, is a match for that. Fermentation changes all foods, including wine. The Chinese might like fino Sherry, for example. The yeast, Saccharomyces vini, that covers the surface as it ages, helps develop aromatic esters that give a much deeper flavor — what we call rancio. I love it.”
Fermentation and bacteria
Some may initially find the idea of pairing madeirized wines with certain Chinese dishes unusual, but Asher’s musings lead him to realize that “unexpected and unusual compatibilities” can be found in the flavors that result from fermentation and bacterial action and those found in dried fish or fungi.
This was illustrated when his friend Darrell Corti of Sacramento used high quality dried Chinese mushrooms in a risotto. “The aroma was extraordinarily pungent,” Asher remembers. “He told me to let them soak overnight, which I did, and the whole apartment smelled of them the next day!” It was this defining ingredient that prompted Asher to pair it with a vin jaune.
Vin jaune is an aged, late-harvest wine “with a slightly Sherry-like flavor,” says Asher. “It worked very well with that mushroom dish, and I think it would work well with other Chinese food based on dried mushrooms and fermented ingredients. A fino Sherry might be a bit strong. But Manzanilla would probably work very well because it has a lighter alcoholic strength.”
He mentions Tokaji as a possible mate for the more complex flavors found in some Chinese dishes, “not only because the grapes incorporate a measure of botrytis (also known as noble rot, the fungus that gives dessert wines their distinctive flavor), but because it goes through a secondary fermentation” which calls for headspace “to encourage the growth of Saccharomyces vini, just as in Sherry.”
It was this lack of fruitiness that suggested Hungarian Furmint, one of the principal grapes used for Tokaji, as another unusual candidate. “Even the dry white wines made from it would complement certain Chinese foods,” says Asher. “As a wine, it’s not a shrinking violet. But it’s not fruity in the way that, say, a Riesling is or a Chardonnay is; it would not overwhelm the most subtle flavor of a Chinese dish.”
Way back in 1975, when Asher started writing in Gourmet about the challenges of matching Western wines with Chinese food, he remembers saying that Chenin blanc would be “like a silken backdrop,” meaning a non-intrusive alternative. And with some Chinese foods, he laughs, “a silken backdrop is the best you can do.”
Wines that are too fruity, he says, can even overwhelm Western foods. “No wine,” says Asher, “should ever be an intrusion, just as the food should never overpower the wine.”
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Top photo: Dry white wines can complement Chinese food. Credit: Carolyn J. Phillips