Ah, Chinese cuisine, that glorious fare that, alas, often poses wine-pairing challenges. The food is often bold — spicy or sweet or oozing with savory umami, the fifth flavor that is hard to describe but easy to love. Sometimes a bite of Chinese food can have all three of those things going on at once. But perhaps just as often, the food is mildly spiced and sauced. It’s tough pairing wine when faced with such extremes, but fortunately wine also comes in lots of styles.
When I go to a BYO Chinese restaurant, I carry along the wines I would like to drink and then pick foods that will go well with them. I usually pack a sparkling wine, a white and a red. Chinese cuisine is all over the map, in the best possible way. It’s best to be prepared.
Chinese meals almost always are served on communal plates with giant serving spoons. Even if it’s just one other person and me, I order a few appetizers, some entrees and some side dishes, and indulge in tasting everything.
Half the fun is enjoying the various flavors and textures, and the other half is taking home leftovers. The same could be said of wine-drinking — though wine never seems to come home with me. Empty bottles at every turn.
Here are suggestions on what styles of wines to drink with nine popular Chinese dishes. To simplify, you could stick to this generality: with Cantonese, dry riesling; with Sichuan, off-dry riesling.
Riesling is the magic potion for Chinese food. Cantonese cuisine is fresh and unadorned, which makes dry riesling a good partner. Sichuan brings the heat of spice, and “off-dry” in any wine means it carries a little sweetness. Like Champagne it balances out Chinese food’s glorious salt, sweetness and spice with acidity, body and that hint of residual sugar.
Many rieslings carry an indicator as to the wine’s sweetness, clearly marked on a horizontal scale from dry to sweet. If the wine is off-dry, the arrow will point to a spot in the “medium-dry” range. While most of these dishes would pair well with an off-dry riesling, some of them practically require it — a little sweetness to temper the heat. Besides that, there are plenty of other options, too, and some of them are listed here.
>> Dim sum: These dumplings filled with shrimp and chives, the large noodle pillows filled with pork, the beef balls and the turnip cakes, among dozens of other dishes, are usually served in the morning and early afternoon. You can’t go wrong with a sparkling wine. Champagne, cava, prosecco — you pick — and you’re probably going to be just fine. Dim sum is basically Chinese brunch, and you love sparkling wine at brunch.
>> Lo mein: When these noodles are tossed with vegetables, zippy, green sauvignon blanc, gruner veltliner or sparkling wine would pair nicely.
>> Chow mein: These stir-fried noodles call for a wine that can cut through the weight and richness of the oil. Try a dry riesling, rose or sparkling wine. The same wine styles could work for fried rice, too — again providing enough fruit and acidity to cut the richness.
>> Moo shu pork: Umami, the “fifth flavor” is all over this rich, mouth-filling dish, and it gets wrapped up nicely in thin-as-paper pancakes. An off-dry riesling or a California chardonnay could make for a nice match, or moving into reds, you could try wines from Beaujolais or a peppery cabernet franc.
>> Peking duck: You’ve got that crispy skin, fatty meat, plum sauce and, once again, pancakes to wrap it all up. Try a ripe pinot noir, or a merlot if you want something a little bolder. If you want to stick with a white, opt for a chenin blanc or a good old off-dry riesling.
>> Mapo tofu: Now we’re getting into some Sichuan spice. Make sure to choose a wine low in tannins and alcohol. A wine with either of those in high doses will only make the heat hotter. For a white, pick pinot gris, an off-dry chenin blanc or a gewurztraminer. Keep your reds fruity and low in tannin. Try a Beaujolais, pinot noir or a delightfully fizzy Lambrusco.
>> Kung pao chicken: Now we’re getting even spicier. This dish can make your lips buzz, and to offset that heat, opt for an off-dry riesling or an aromatic gewurztraminer. Off-dry whites go with spicy like Batman goes with fighting crime.
>> Beef and broccoli: This savory dish plays well with silky reds, such as merlot, grenache or a GSM (grenache, shiraz, mourvedre) blend.