2021 Year of the Ox: Wines for Chinese New Year

Before suggesting some delicious wines to pair with classic Chinese New Year dishes in 2021, the Year of the Ox, it’s worth considering the depth of possibilities “Chinese food” represents. China’s incredibly diverse gastronomic culture offers a dizzying array of cuisines and regional dishes combining not only complexity of flavor but a remarkable variety of textures: everything from the crispiest roast meats (like Beijing Duck or Cantonese roast pigeon) to the melt-in-the-mouth softness of silken tofu. In the wine world we talk of “mouthfeel,” but it’s not exactly common parlance, whereas the Chinese 口感 (kou gan), which means “mouthfeel,” can be heard in everyday conversations about food. 

Admittedly, the gelatinous texture of sea cucumber or beef tendon may not be to everyone’s taste, and the Chinese are quick to stress individual palate preferences, in Mandarin called 个人的口味 (ge ren de kou wei). But it’s that combination of textural elements with flavor, either coming from the base ingredient or from an accompanying sauce, that completes many a Chinese dish. These dishes also cry out for wine, with its notable acidity—something absent from the traditional Chinese drinks accompanying meals, be they tea or rice wine, beer or the not-for-the-fainthearted white spirit bai jiu.

However, China has never really celebrated matching alcoholic drinks with its cuisines. Yes, there are certain specific exceptions, like hairy crab and rice wine. But alcoholic beverages have been more of a social lubricant at the Chinese dinner table rather than liquids intended to enhance flavor or refresh palates. Moreover, dishes are considered harmonious in themselves; and while this is arguably what every chef aims for, it’s certainly true that in “the West” wine has been much more integrated with cuisine, especially in wine-producing cultures. 

But with the new interest in wine in mainland China, attitudes are changing, and Chinese wine lovers earnestly bring a plethora of different wines to share with friends in local restaurants and, to a lesser extent, when dining at home. So, if you dispense with the idea of matching a specific wine with a specific dish and enjoy instead all the dishes at a Chinese table with a selection of different wines, there’s a great culinary experience to be had! And this is no less the case when celebrating Chinese New Year. 

In what follows, I’ve selected a range of international wines and some Chinese suggestions, all of which have been reviewed here in The Wine Advocate, to match with classic Chinese New Year dishes. Bearing in mind that some of the Chinese wines chosen are not available in international markets, I’ve led with the international wines first. But for any readers in China, or those more familiar with Chinese fine wine, I hope the Chinese selections will also be of interest. 

If you’re celebrating Chinese New Year with friends, then these wines should certainly provide fantastic accompaniments to the below dishes and menu categories: 

Cold Dishes
Chinese cold dishes are a key part of the beginning of any significant Chinese dinner and are often celebrated at New Year. They come in many forms but often rely on fresh, crunchy textures and lively flavors: anything from mouth-watering chicken (口水鸡 kou shui ji) to simple cucumber in sesame sauce. 

Cold dishes work well with typically lighter wines with some vibrant acidity and are definitely enhanced by most forms of sparkling wine. I recommend any decent Champagne, such as NV Tarlant Extra Brut Cuvee Louis or, if splashing out, 2012 Pol Roger Brut Vintage, or a top-quality Cartizze such as 2017 Col Vetoraz Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze Dry.

If you are sourcing something Chinese, I recommend the 2018 Chateau Nine Peaks Pinkker Rose and 2018 Chateau Changyu Moser Blanc de Noir. These are both pink wines with character that are ideal for matching with lighter, cold dishes. 

Spring Rolls
The crisp, crunchy texture of spring rolls invites wines with flavor but also some refreshing degree of acidity, no matter what the filling inside the spring roll is. The aforementioned sparkling wines would undoubtedly pair well, but if you’re looking for something non-effervescent, then most forms of German Riesling are excellent, as in this top-notch, dry example: 2017 Schloss Vollrads Greiffenberg GG. For a Chinese selection, I recommend this excellent white: 2017 Puchang Vineyard Rkatsiteli. Rkatsiteli’s naturally high acidity and the depth of flavor in this example make for an excellent accompaniment. 

Whole Fish
There are many whole fish dishes celebrated in Chinese cuisine that are especially important to serve during Chinese New Year. These are sometimes made with richer sauces or, if in Cantonese style, with a soy-based sauce, sometimes with a touch of sesame oil and abundant green onion and ginger. Chardonnay can be an excellent pairing, especially with some degree of new oak, as with a textbook Meursault such as 2017 Olivier Leflaive Meursault Village or one of New Zealand’s very best: the 2017 Kumeu River  Coddington Chardonnay.

As a Chinese selection, I recommend one of China’s very best Chardonnays: 2018 Chateau Nine Peaks Qi Chardonnay. This has richness of primary fruit, distinct toasted new oak and some textural lees that all complement fish, whether delicate white fish or meatier examples such as carp. 

If, alternatively, you want a red wine to serve with fish, then wines made from Pinot Noir work well, as in this top Chilean example from Limari: 2017 Tabalí Talinay Pinot Noir. From China, I recommend the 2017 Canaan Winery Mastery Pinot Noir from Huailai in Hebei, one of the country’s more promising expressions of Pinot. 

Dumplings (Beijing 饺子 jiaozi or other styles)
With their wide range of ingredients and often strong dipping sauces (e.g., with vinegar, soy sauce or chili oil), dumplings need matching with similarly flavorful wines. While they do not have to be red and powerful, they do require plenty of flavor concentration. Australian Shiraz and Shiraz-Cabernet blends make excellent pairings, such as 2016 Oliver's Taranga Corrina's Shiraz Cabernet. Similarly, top Argentine Malbec works well too: for example, 2016 Rutini Single Vineyard Gualtallary Malbec.

From China, I recommend 2018 Grace Vineyard Interval, a lovely blend of Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon produced in Ningxia (a new project for Grace, which is actually based in Shanxi). 

Stewed Dishes
Whether stewed beef or red-cooked pork (红烧肉 hong shao rou), these abundantly flavorful dishes are better suited to similarly rich red wines such as this South African classic from the Sadie family: 2017 Sadie Family Columella. Another great pairing would be a textbook Napa Cabernet such as 2016 Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon.

From China, I recommend two selections: 2017 Xige Estate Jade Dove Single Vineyard Cabernet Gernischt and 2016 Tiansai Skyline of Gobi Grand Reserve Marselan. Xige Estate’s Jade Dove Single Vineyard Cabernet Gernischt is one of China’s very best expressions of Cabernet Gernischt (a.k.a. Carmenère) and has worked well in the 2017 vintage. The Marselan grape, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly important in China; this grape is known for giving deep purple color to wines and plenty of fruit flavor with notable body and tannic grip, making an excellent accompaniment for many braised dishes. Tiansai’s Grand Reserve Marselan has all of those qualities and is developing well in bottle. 

Whatever wine you pick to celebrate Chinese New Year, it’s best not to obsess over individual combinations but welcome the whole gastronomic experience, if you are lucky enough in these demanding times to be able to get around a table and enjoy the mutual pleasures of sharing great food and wine.

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