Beyond Gewürztraminer: Wine and Chinese food
October 10th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
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Ray Isle (@islewine on Twitter) is Food & Wine's executive wine editor. We trust his every cork pop and decant – and the man can sniff out a bargain to boot. Take it away, Ray.

Wine and Chinese food tends to promote a strange response among wine writers, which can be summed up as “pair Chinese food with off-dry Riesling. Or Gewürztraminer.”

Well, fine, but isn’t that sort of like saying “pair French food with white Burgundy” or “pair Italian food with a red wine?” Last I heard, Chinese cuisine had enormous regional variety and a culinary tradition that extends back, oh, a few thousand years or so. (In 2005, archeologists discovered the remains of some 4,000 year old noodles near the Yellow River; those are some mighty old noodles.)

Now, Americanized Chinese food, that’s a more recent invention - safe to say the folks who made those noodles four millennia ago weren’t chowing down on plates of General Tso’s Chicken. Regardless, here are some pairing suggestions for dishes from both the traditional and not-so realms.

Sweet & Sour Pork
Originally Cantonese, now sort of everywhere-universal, this dish of deep-fried pork pieces in a glutinous sugar-soy-vinegar sauce can work well with something that’s full of good acidity and ever so faintly sweet - and that has bubbles, which scrub the tongue of all that sticky sauce. Caposaldo Prosecco ($14) would be a fun choice.

Steamed Whole Fish with Ginger and Scallion
Aromatic and delicious, and fairly delicately flavored (if you use a white-fleshed fish like tilapia or sea bass), this is a classic Cantonese dish. Go for an aromatic unoaked white with some body, like Pine Ridge’s 2010 Chenin Blanc-Viognier ($14)

Peking Duck
Crispy duck skin, luscious roasted duck meat, hoisin sauce - it’s hard to think of a more Pinot Noir-friendly dish. The 2009 Brancott Pinot Noir ($13) from New Zealand balances fruit and spice effectively.

Hot and Sour Soup

Hot and sour soup in its takeout form gets its hotness from white pepper and its sourness from vinegar, which is the tricky pairing part here. Tart dishes - vinaigrette on a salad is another example - tend to do best with tart wines; they kill softer ones. Try a dry (not sweet) Riesling like the 2009 Dr. Loosen Red Slate ($15) from Germany.

Kung Pao Chicken
Most renditions in the U.S. of this chicken-with-peanuts-and-peppers dish are mildly spicy; head to a place that serves authentic Szechuan cuisine though, and the heat level goes up (plus, there’s that bizarre numbing sensation from the Szechuan peppercorns that will be in there too). For the everyday take-out versions, a moderately oaky Chardonnay is a nice complement - like the 2009 Bogle California Chardonnay ($10). For more traditional versions, go with an - you guessed it - off-dry Riesling, like the 2010 Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl ($14).

Salted Baked Duck Tongue
Actually, tongues, plural: you get about fifteen or so on a plate. I had them in Nanjing at one point. They’re crisp and salty, a tiny wisp of meat clinging to a tiny flexible bone. Not nearly as bizarre as they sound, and ideal with Champagne, which works great with most fried, salty foods (Champagne and French fries, for instance). And just go all out - I mean, you’re already eating duck tongues, so why not? 2002 Dom Perignon ($150).

More from Food & Wine:

Delicious Asian Dishes

Fast Chinese Recipes

Healthy Asian Recipes

Asian Beer Pairings

More Chinese Food Pairing Ideas

© 2011 American Express Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. king of grass

    There used to be a great chinese restaurant called the Crown Point. Joe Francis of the Royal Francis' family has made a wonderful menu that had exotic flavor combinations of rice and seafood.

    October 13, 2011 at 4:12 am |

    Mississauga, On has just banned shark fins. Sharks 1 Ignorant People 0

    October 12, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
  3. super stud puppy

    I love the thought of some wine snob sipping on an overpriced glass of grapefarts while eating sweet and spicy kung pow alley cat.

    October 12, 2011 at 6:19 am |
  4. Christopher Cohrs


    October 11, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  5. Dantx

    Rice wine?

    October 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  6. mose

    orange chicken, chow mein, box of wine.

    October 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  7. PYC

    The premise of this article seems to be that Chinese meals are eaten one dish at a time, which is clearly not true! During most traditional Chinese meals there are a bunch of dishes on the table at one time. So the real question is: what wine is most versatile at pairing with a broad range of dishes? For me, the answer is either a German riesling with decent residual sugar and piercing acidity, or a sparkling wine with good structure and body (like champagne).

    October 11, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  8. Don

    Chinese restaurants tend to have a 'secret menu' that they offer Asians that doesn't include the typical Americanized concoctions. I would like to try this menu.

    October 11, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • mose

      i know, right? I always see the restaurant staff eating bowls of ramen.

      October 11, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • J

      That is usually because the 'secret' menu is in Chinese. They don't have American names for the dishes, so there is typically more selection in the Chinese menu

      October 11, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  9. Nanook

    Wailspit is a good option.

    October 11, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  10. Wastrel

    Drinking alcoholic beverages is not done while eating Chinese food. There is no such thing as "pairing", which is a barbarism invented by wine snobs anyway. At a Chinese meal, drinking is done between courses, and after the dining is finished, the people who remain at the table indulge in 'drinking without measure'.

    October 11, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  11. Disgusted

    Boy, you people sure have no respect for animals!

    October 11, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Zin

      Or wine.

      October 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  12. SushiNorth

    I served Gewurtz & Riesling at my wedding (a traditional chinese banquet) after doing a taste test amongst 20+ wines (mostly white). I also served Port. Heavy, tannic RED port (Smith Woodhouse 1995 LBV to be precise). It's not just light crisp alcohols that go with chinese food. Often there are stronger, savory flavors that go well with heavier sweet red wines. We've found Port, in particular, goes well with peking duck (particularly because of the sauce used) and with anything involving black beans or roasted pork.

    October 11, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  13. Richard Lusk

    Great article. I am an American currently living in China right now in the city of Chengdu. I will have to try these combinations as I am taking a cooking class where we make some of these dishes. The Kung Pao Chicken numbing sensation comes from a Sichuan pepper called Hua Jiao. There was a U.S. import ban until 2005 on these peppers.

    October 11, 2011 at 3:58 am |
  14. Joey B

    Donald Sun would you prefer some pork bungs and zinfandel, or how about chicken feet and a vouvray chenin blanc? Or maybe you like to eat pig feet, that would go well with an Australian shiraz.

    October 11, 2011 at 12:00 am |
  15. Donald Sun

    You call this chinese food??? Is this the extent of your knowledge on a 4,000 year old cuisine? That's embarrassing.

    October 10, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
    • KK

      I agree with this statement.

      October 11, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • Sweetenedtea

      At no point outside of your fevered imagination was it said, implied, hinted at, suggested or even shouted from the mountaintop that this was the extent of the writer's knowledge. All the person said was that these were a few traditional and nontraditional examples. Really, that's not a difficult bit of verbiage to parse.

      October 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Zin

      Yeah the rest of the Chinese cuisine looks and tastes as if it came out of rotting trash cans decorated with dead flowers.
      The Chinese were/are very imaginative with serving guests the food their pigs wouldn't eat. How about some fresh city rat on a stick?

      October 11, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
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