Chinese New Year? Choose Italian Wines!
What? Wait a minute. Why?
Well, as everyone knows, the link between Chinese and Italian cuisines dates back to Marco Polo, the intrepid thirteenth century explorer who returned to Italy from China bearing noodles. Thanks to him, the entire canon of pasta recipes that defines Italian cuisine for so many people has, at its heart, the Chinese noodle.
Or does it?
Despite the fact that there are references in Sicily to "A food made from flour in the form of strings" written by an Arab traveller named Idrisi in 1154, it is an apocryphal story from 140 years later that has captured our collective imagination. Marco Polo arrived in China in 1271 and stayed there until 1292, but after his travels he ended up becoming a prisoner of war in Genoa, where he wrote a book called "Description of the World" - one of the world's first travel books. Many have taken his mention of noodles therein as being evidence that he discovered this new food in China and brought it back with him, whereas the actual passages seem to suggest that he was already familiar with this kind of food and was describing the Chinese noodles based on the pasta he knew from home.
As a die-hard romantic and a firm believer in the old adage "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story", I'm quite happy to take this tenuous link and roll with it! There is, however, a small amount of empirical evidence to support my flight of fancy - albeit in the form of brilliant food and wine pairings rather than in concrete anthropological findings.
Many years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a tasting dinner where a wide range of Chinese dishes was paired with a selection of great wines from the Veneto. This was quite a groundbreaking event at the time - the market for wine in China had not yet blossomed and even within the wine trade relatively few people looked beyond tea or beer to accompany the delights of oriental cuisine.
It's certainly true that Eastern flavours and spices, combined with a love of serving a wide array of shared dishes all at the same time, can make it difficult to pair any single wine with such a meal, but that's not to say that many Chinese dishes do not make delicious partners to any number of great wines. If you visit a restaurant with a group of friends, it is not unusual for six people to each order a different main course and yet we do not think twice about ordering just one wine to pair with everyone's meals. The same philosophy can hold true in a Chinese restaurant, i.e. you can choose a wine to work best with the most dominant flavours of the selection of dishes you have ordered. The difference with Chinese restaurants, when compared with those serving many other national cuisines, is that it is actually quite easy to order a succession of different dishes to be shared by the table and to have them served one at a time, as individual courses. This makes it much easier to pair wines with what can sometimes be tricky flavour combinations and to enjoy each dish and each wine to their fullest.
There are some ingredients that will always defy your best wine matching efforts - for example, strong garlic flavours can make wine taste unpleasantly metallic and the heat of chili is a well-known wine slayer - but don't let this put you off exploring both the menu and the wine list as you join in with the celebrations for Chinese New Year.
Because that tasting dinner really opened my eyes to the possibility of matching wine with Chinese food, and because I enjoy the wines of the Veneto as much as I do, I've stuck with a similar theme here and I heartily recommend you give some of these favourite pairings a try:
Steamed Scallop Dumplings
These soft parcels of seafood perfection are one of my all-time favourite foods, an intoxicating blend of delicate flavours and subtle complexity. To make them even better, one of my favourite wines, Soave, is the ideal partner! Corte Adami's Cimalta has beautifully rich citrus fruit, balanced by a vibrant mineral freshness. My mouth is watering as I'm typing.
Beijing Roast Duck
Succulent, savoury, glassy-skinned; with a decadently unctuous fattiness and an exotic whiff of five spice, the crunchy red berry fruit of cool climate Pinot Noir is just the ticket. This is a dish that can make the grandest of Grand Cru red Burgundy sing, but for sheer enjoyment that doesn't require a second mortgage we just love the youthful exuberance of Astoria's Caranto.
Steamed Red Bean Buns
Chinese desserts may not be familiar to some of you, but don't be afraid to take the plunge. Bao are steamed buns that can contain a wide range of fillings, both savoury and sweet. Dou Sha Bao, or sweet red bean bao, are as delicious for dessert as they are for breakfast. Sweet, but not too sweet, a wine to match these bao should display the same qualities. Luigi Righetti's Recioto Della Valpolicella is a fantastic red dessert wine that is closer to medium than fully sweet. Juicy, ripe, cherry fruit, fresh acidity and a noticeable but not overwhelming level of residual sugar beautifully pair with the sweetened red bean paste. In Chinese culture red is an auspicious colour, symbolising good fortune and joy, so the combination of red beans and red wine must be the best possible way to see in the new year.
We hope you enjoy trying some of these suggestions, and we wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous year of the monkey.