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15 May 2019updated 30 Jun 2021 11:49am

When it comes to Chinese food and wine, there are brilliant pairings to be found

By Nina Caplan

Our house has many corkscrews, which will come as no surprise. Only three occasions give the corkscrew the night off in Chateau Caplan, and one of those is breakfast, so night doesn’t come into it. Another is the cracking of a screw cap. The third is Chinese food.

This isn’t my rule: I think a Gewürztraminer or off-dry Riesling with decent acidity can deal deftly with most reasonable chillies and spices, while the kind of substandard cuisine that is drowned in soy sauce or MSG is nothing I want to ingest: banish the sludge that insults China’s many-faceted culinary capabilities and give me back my corkscrew. A country of more than 9.5 million square kilometres has many cuisines, so talking of Chinese cooking is as reductive as claiming to dislike red wine. Still, I have very limited experience of really fine Chinese cooking of any kind, so pairings are not something I have worried about much. On my one trip to China, the only wine I was offered was made by Great Wall, the country’s biggest wine producer (state-owned, of course), so I focused on my plate.

Now, a book by Janet Wang, The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion, suggests pairings for the different types of cuisine (between discussing Chinese wine regions, drunken poetry and the real meaning of kung fu), while Imperial Treasure, a Chinese restaurant by a highly regarded Asian group, has opened in London with a beady eye on a Michelin star and the wine list to achieve it.

An invitation to dinner with wines chosen by Singapore-based expert Ch’ng Poh Tiong sounded like a pleasant way to improve my knowledge of what would go with what. No Chinese wines featured; instead, I received further confirmation that good Champagne goes with almost everything while Bordeaux, however good, does not. Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle negotiated a foam of egg white topped with caviar from Qiandaohu, a freshwater lake outside Shanghai, with ease; a beautiful Smith Haut Lafitte blanc 2015 was very happy with turbot, despite the spring onions, but Petit Haut Lafitte 2012, the estate’s entry-level red, winced at the mustard on Ibérico pork belly.

You might have gathered that the wine wasn’t the only non-Chinese element on the menu. And what of that? I thought of the early emperor Shih Huang Ti, who built the Great Wall and who, according to the writer Jose Luis Borges, ordered that all books that preceded his reign be burned. He also restricted wine production, writes Wang. Which is logical: wine is liquid memory. It is the enemy of those who would abolish history. Perhaps the current Chinese passion for wine, both foreign and indigenous, is a bold response by history to that ancient emperor, and it’s drunken poetic justice that even the Great Wall is now a brand of wine. 

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We should not encircle or limit ourselves: exploration, whether intellectual, geographic or gastronomic, is a virtue, and my corkscrews can expect to be busier than ever. The world is broad and rich, thank goodness, despite the attempts of powerful men to reduce it to the size of their own fears. Or to put it another way: Champagne may go with everything but that doesn’t mean that everything should be obliged to go with Champagne. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article appears in the 15 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the Irish question