Pair Like A Pro: This Christmas, Wine and Chinese Food Make A Happy Family

Food & Drink

From Peking duck to Mapo tofu, there’s a wine to go with your favorite Chinese dish.

A tradition begun in New York City more than 100 years ago by Lower East Side Jews, eating Chinese food on Christmas day remains a popular convention—so much so that this hand-lettered sign, posted in the window of a Chinese restaurant, itself has become an annual viral event. No one really knows if it’s for real, a gag or a meme, but it speaks of the much-loved ritual’s continuance.

In a recent post on the Jewish Forward, author Joshua Eli Plaut, who is also the rabbi of Metropolitan Synagogue of New York, suggests it’s all in fun. “We have found no evidence of this being authentic or not. It’s urban folklore. But it doesn’t matter because the message is funny and it just goes to show you this is a real phenomenon,” he told the Forward reporter.

Of course, you don’t have to be Jewish to partake, but you do have to know what to drink with your Sichuan or Cantonese (or any of the other six styles). Unlike other pairings, with Chinese cuisine, you don’t match the wines to the protein but to the sauces accompanying it. Generally speaking (and rules can be broken here), for dishes with a five-spice or a chili base, look to bold reds, especially those from the New World (Malbec, Shiraz, Cabernet). Still whites and sparkling wines make good partners for more delicate tidbits such as soup dumplings or shrimp shumai. Dishes with some sweet/sour dynamics play well with lighter-bodied, fruit, low-tannin reds like Gamay (Beaujolais) or Lambrusco.

The China Wine Competition helpfully lists some common pairings, but I crowd-sourced some recommendations from the pros. Here are a few tried and true pairings featuring a variety of flavors and textures.

Starters and light dishes. The diversity of tastes in a Dim Sum cart requires an all-purpose wine that will complement range of flavors from delicate to soy-seasoned proteins. For that, Wines of South Africa marketing manager Jim Clarke turns to bubbles. “Sparkling wine’s flexibility is great in that situation,” he said. “Usually we do steamer dumplings like har gow (shrimp). The mouthfeel that lees aging brings matches the dumplings for weight and presence, but the acidity keeps things fresh.” Same with rice rolls, another favorite, he says. “Bubbly works pretty well with all of them. I like the textural contrast with the ‘soup’ of the dumplings and, of course, the acidity is great with fried dumplings.”

Clarke isn’t alone in selecting fizz with first courses. Smadar Berlingeri, a portfolio director with Monsieur Touton Selections, a New York importer/distributor, says “of course” to a pairing of soup dumplings with Piper Sonoma, a California sparkler in the brut style.

Ex-pat sommelier Richard Fink who, with his chef wife, runs Casa Papaya, a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, would pair a Burgundian-styled Pinot Noir with “Chop your Head Off” soup, which he describes as a complex soup “made with ground pork and noodles in chicken stock, also sesame oil, soy, ginger and garlic…I don’t know what else, but it is dense with flavor.” His Pinot pick: a Volnay Champans from Marquis d’Angerville or from Winderlea Winery in Oregon Although now being in Mexico, he says, “it just ain’t gonna happen.”

Peking duck. Anne Malhere, a wine retailer in Greenwich, Conn., prefers wines with low tannins, low acidity—”a very ripe Syrah, Australian Shiraz or even a Zinfandel from California” with this iconic dish. On Curious Cuisine, Merlot is the choice. With this festive fowl, Berlingeri goes traditional with the full-bodied red-fruit-driven Piper Sonoma Brut Rose.

Tried and true favorites

Berlingeri stays with Piper brut sparkling for mainstay dishes from fried rice to chicken with broccoli or shrimp with snow peas. The acidity, she says, “cleanses the palate and readies it for the next course, while the zesty bubbles invite sip after sip.”

With Moo Shu pork, Kimberly Noelle Charles, president of Charles Communications in San Francisco, selects Nerello Mascalese, a Sicilian red. ”[It’s] is like a love child of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Its medium tannins and expressive red fruitiness hold up to the richness of the pork and complement the smoky, umami rich hoisin sauce that provides the backdrop to the pork and cabbage.”

Eugene Engel, sales director for Champagne Carbon recommends his company’s bubbles with General Tso’s chicken or Peking duck, and Odila Galer-Noel, president of PRonCall, a wine-focused agency, wants “some kind of yeasty bubbles with crispy salt and pepper shrimp.”

Spicy dishes

“Alsace blanc! Did someone say Gentil?” says Boston sommelier Nick Dadonna, referring to the Alsatian white blend made from Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Muscat and Sylvaner. “Gentil is dry to just off dry, with a bunch of texture, and I like it best with spicy dishes like Kung Pao, hot and sour soup and beef with spicy garlic sauce. Alsace is also the choice of Pittsburgh radio host, wine writer and recovering restaurateur Dave DeSimone whose Christmas dinner plans include spicy Sichuan prawns and Gewurztraminer. “Because of the region’s sunny, dry climate, Alsace Gewurztraminers generally have good concentration and a kiss of residual sweetness that plays well against the prawns’ fiery spiciness.”

Orange wine guru Doreen Winkler selects Keltis Zan, a seven-grape blend from Slovenia to pair with Mapo tofu, a traditional Sichuan dish driven by red-hot roasted chili oil, and Sichuan peppercorns. “It has some nice acid along with nice minerality to cool off the spice,” she said. “At the same time the ground pork works nice with the medium texture of the wine and the savory notes.”

Mapo tofu is also the choice for wine-focused PR pro Stephanie Teuwen, whose tastes run to spicy Sichuan. “Mapo tofu is the one dish I can never get enough of—I even make it at home,” she says. “The heat of the pepper is slightly tamed by the umami flavors of the sauce, and to add another layer of deliciousness, I uncork a dry Alsace Riesling. The aromatic profile and the acidic spine of the wine complements the complex flavors of this dish and transports you to food heaven.”

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