The world would be a much simpler place if there was only one wine to match with each cuisine. Italian? Chianti, of course. French? It would probably have to be Bordeaux, if only because there's so much of it (unsold) around. American? While wine snobs would like to believe otherwise, popular consensus would point to White Zinfandel. This all sounds quite silly, of course, until you consider that one of the world's most complex cuisines, the one with the most daunting combination of flavors (hot, sour, salty and sweet—sometimes even in the same dish) has become inextricably linked with a single wine. Eating Chinese food? The wine has got to be a Gewürztraminer.
I'm not sure who made the first match or how such an oddball varietal with aromas of lychees and roses won a starring role. The idea certainly didn't originate with the Chinese, according to my colleague, F&W Features Editor (and first-generation Chinese American) Michelle Shih. "Most Chinese people drink Coke or Sprite with their meals," she told me. In fact, Michelle added, a lot of the Chinese restaurants that she favors set out big bottles of Coke or Sprite on the tables—much like a French restaurant might position a suggested wine. Did Michelle ever drink Gewürztraminer with dinner? Never, she replied, though her Shanghai-born parents occasionally serve it at home, having discovered the grape while traveling in Alsace (where they drank their Gewürztraminer not with soup dumplings but with choucroute garnie).
Most likely the combination of Chinese food and Gewürztraminer came about as a result of the work of sommeliers who found in the grape the same spicy notes they found in much of the food; they probably believed the wine's richness was a compliment to the strong flavors of the cuisine. And since Gewürztraminer isn't an easy sell—like, say, Chardonnay—being able to connect it to a specific cuisine probably helped to move some wine.
It's not that I've got anything against Gewürztraminer; in fact, I'm one of its biggest fans. I love Gewürzs from all over the world, Alsace to New Zealand. I even prefer the Gewürztraminers of the Finger Lakes region to its Rieslings (a near heretical statement in New York state). I'm just not convinced it's the best choice for Chinese food. I find its assertive character more often competes with rather than complements the food, and its sweetness (and Gewürz is more commonly sweet than it is dry) fails to refresh the palate. In an effort to prove that there are plenty of more appealing alternatives, I ate about a dozen Chinese meals in a month—accompanied by a range of non-Gewürztraminer wines.
One of my first dinners was with my friend the Collector, who I thought would appreciate the challenge and, of course, bring along some good wines. The Collector initially protested the plan, saying, "I only drink beer with Chinese food." But when I promised soup dumplings and great Peking duck at my favorite Chinese restaurant, Shanghai Tide, in Flushing, in Queens, he agreed. (The Collector loves Peking duck almost as much as he does foie gras.)
Shanghai Tide (which my husband, Alan, and I call Wing's, for the proprietor, Wing Nin Chan) is home to some of the most authentic Shanghainese food in New York. Its soup dumplings (both steamed and fried, filled with crabmeat and pork respectively) are inevitably light and delicious. But they can be a challenge with wine, especially accompanied by the traditional vinegar sauce.
The Collector arrived at Wing's carrying a large canvas sack and immediately began pulling out bottles, oblivious to the stares of the diners around us (all Asian). In fact, though I've been to Wing's often, I've never seen anyone else drinking wine. Budweiser and Coke but not wine.
"I brought some wines that I thought would go with the soup dumplings and some that might go with the Peking duck," said the Collector, showing me the first bottle—a 1985 Dom Pérignon rosé. For someone who usually drinks beer with Chinese food, the Collector seemed to be adapting remarkably well. The Dom Pérignon, one of the great wines of a stellar vintage, was rich and deeply flavored but also possessed of a bright and surprisingly youthful acidity; it went beautifully with both kinds of dumplings, though it paired with the fried pork dumplings particularly well. (A good rule of thumb: Anything that goes well with beer goes well with Champagne, especially rosé.) The only problem was when we tried the dumplings with the vinegar sauce: The tartness killed the wine, leaving only acidity behind.
The Champagne and the turnip puffs were brilliant together. Made of puff pastry stuffed with shredded turnip, covered with sesame seeds and baked, they seemed to be created just for Champagne. "The Collector knows," said the Collector approvingly. (The Collector had recently begun speaking of himself in the third person, which made it a bit like dining with Prince Charles.) In the meantime, he'd opened another bottle of wine, the 1990 Cuvée Frederic-Emile Riesling from Trimbach, the famed Alsace producer. Riesling is one of my favorite wines to pair with Chinese food, but the austerity of this one (and Trimbach Rieslings can be austere) meant there wasn't quite enough richness for the food. There was lots of acidity, but there was not enough fruit.
The Collector's next offering was a grand cru white Burgundy, the 1996 Jadot Chevalier-Montrachet "Les Demoiselles." In this case, the wine was so great that no one really cared if it went with the food. Though, surprisingly, it did, and beautifully so. The lobster in ginger and scallion sauce and the sautéed blue crab in brown sauce were rich, yet the wine was richer still—showing plenty of new oak but lots of gorgeous fruit, too, not to mention a long, intensely mineral finish. Was Chardonnay, in fact, a great wine with Chinese food? Or did it just work when the wine was a $300 Burgundy grand cru?
Meanwhile, the Collector had opened two wines to try with the Peking duck: a 1998 Domaine Le Clos du Caillou Côtes-du-Rhône and a 1985 Penfolds Grange. While the latter is a legendary bottling with a price tag to match (around $400) the Collector seemed more excited by the Côtes-du-Rhône. "Of all the combinations, I thought this would work best," he said. Indeed, the Côtes-du-Rhône had lots of lively acidity to cut through the fatty duck and the sweet hoisin sauce and enough fruit to stand up to its strong flavors, too. In fact, it was such a felicitous match we barely tasted the Grange. "Do you want to take this home?" asked the waiter, indicating the bottle. We nodded. He returned some minutes later with the Grange—poured into a quart-size plastic wonton soup container.
My next Chinese meal was at the home of my colleague Michelle, who made fried pork wontons, spicy beef with green peppers and Lion's Head (a sort of pork meatball stew). My husband contributed Hunan Lamb, the one dish he'd learned to make in Chinese cooking school.
The food was flavorful and delicious, but the wines were a bit problematic. For example, the first Riesling, a 2004 Tim Adams bottling from Australia, had too much acidity and not enough fruit. Like the Trimbach, it was just too austere. Luckily, I'd brought a second bottle, a 2004 Eroica Riesling from Washington State, which had a little more fruit. Better yet was the Chardonnay that I'd brought along, just to see how it might do. In fact, the oaky but rich 2003 Pine Ridge Winery Dijon Clones Napa Chardonnay's generous proportions provided a good counterweight to the wontons. (A wine that's well-oaked can often work with fried food as long as there's plenty of fruit.) I was surprised at how well the Chardonnay even went with the beef (which wasn't too spicy). I thought of my friend Kevin Zraly's contention that a California Chardonnay can handle a steak. What would he say to a pairing of (slightly) spicy beef?
The Hunan Lamb, however, didn't work with the Chardonnay at all. The dish was quite hot (lots of chiles) and sweet (lots of brown sugar), and the heat made the oaky wine taste like wood. (Oak and heat are a bad combination.) On the other hand, the lamb made the austere Riesling taste sweeter, more balanced. In fact, my husband pronounced his lamb to be the salvation of the wine. I was just glad his self-praise didn't take a third-person form. The Pinot Noir that I'd opened, a 2002 Sea Smoke Botella from the Santa Rita Hills, fared a little worse. The wine turned out to be big and tannic, with lots of new oak and smoky dark fruit—more like a Shiraz than a Pinot Noir. (Spice and high alcohol are another fatal combination.) "It's burning the back of my mouth," said Michelle, and I wasn't sure if she meant the lamb or the Pinot.
A few days later we invited our neighbors, Stephanie and Victor, over for some take-out Chinese. They sounded enthusiastic but experienced, too. According to Victor, they ate Chinese takeout "almost every other night."
We ordered some classic take-out dishes: shrimp toast, egg rolls and sesame noodles, as well as chicken chow mein, moo shu chicken, orange beef and sesame shrimp. I opened three whites to start with—all clean, dry whites with refreshing acidity: the 2004 Kumeu River Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, the 2004 Burgans Albariño from Spain and a 2004 Dry Creek Vineyard Clarksburg Chenin Blanc.
Good acidity was key when it came to combatting the egg rolls and shrimp toast, which tasted like they'd been left in a deep fryer for days. The noodles were more palatable but made the wines taste neutral and flat. "I think I'd rather have a Snapple," said Stephanie. But my husband was determined to find a noodle-worthy wine and kept opening bottles. He tried a Syrah, a Pinot Noir and a Zinfandel before admitting defeat, or at least conceding the Snapple.
Meanwhile, the chemistry between the moo shu chicken and the Pinot Noir, a 2003 Roessler Cellars Red Label, redeemed my belief in the grape's ability to pair well with Chinese food. This wine was beautifully balanced, with sweet, ripe fruit and a juicy acidity. It actually gave the moo shu chicken more flavor—as it did the chicken chow mein. It even tamed the heat of the spicy orange beef. (A wine with a lot of up-front fruit and a good backbone of acidity can "fill out" a dull dish like moo shu but also contrast nicely with one that has a bit of spice.) The only dish beyond the redemptive power of the Pinot was the sesame shrimp. Soggy, sweet and deep-fried, the shrimp defied every wine we had open. In fact, we agreed, it could even kill Snapple. Moral of this story: There is no wine suitable for bad Chinese takeout.
The more wines I tried, the more convinced I became that there was an enormous range that would be delicious with Chinese food. I found Rieslings, Albariños and Chenin Blancs, not to mention grand cru white Burgundies and Pinot Noirs. And thanks to a certain media mogul, I even had a Brunello that worked perfectly.
The media mogul and I happened to be dining at Manhattan's Shun Lee Palace on the same night. I'd decided to make my last Chinese meal an upscale experience, in an expensive restaurant that actually had a wine list (although I brought my own bottle too, just in case).
The Shun Lee menu is a mix of Sichuan, Shanghainese, Hunan, and Cantonese dishes, while its wine list is an homage to California Cabernet—not the first wine that comes to mind for Chinese food. We ordered a few appetizers: steamed dumplings and a dish called chicken soong (chicken with celery and pine nuts, wrapped up in a lettuce leaf) paired with my 2002 Huet Le Mont Sec Vouvray. A great Vouvray, made from the Chenin Blanc grape, gorgeously rich, almost unctuous, with a brilliant, clean, dry, mineral finish, it not only paired well with the dishes but even improved them.
Unfortunately, my friends liked it so much they finished the wine before the next course was served (a hot shredded beef dish), so I retrieved the list and began searching for a suitable red. Preferably not a Cabernet. Just then, two couples walked by. One man looked familiar. "Isn't that Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom?" asked one of my friends.
We watched as Redstone was seated and handed the wine list. He soon ordered a bottle from the waitress. I flagged her down and asked her what Redstone had ordered. She checked and came back. "Number 115," she said. I paged through the wine list and discovered that 115 was the 1999 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino ($116). An excellent wine from a great vintage but hardly an obvious choice. "We'll have what he's having," I said to our waitress. After all, Redstone had had the foresight to buy Paramount, Blockbuster and CBS; who knew what insight he might have about Brunello?
The Brunello, as it turned out, was not only delicious but worked perfectly too. Soft and generous with supple tannins and firm acidity, it countered the sweetness of the pork and tamed the spiciness of the beef.
After Redstone had left, the restaurant's manager approached us. "Who was that?" he wanted to know. "Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom," I replied. A man who controls one the most important media companies in the country, is personally worth about $9 billion—and a man who knows how to pair wine with Chinese food.