Matching South African wines with Chinese cuisine can be tricky but the country produces an extraordinary number of different grape varieties, such as the popular Chenin Blanc and South Africa’s unique Pinotage. There’s everything from wonderfully elegant examples of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Walker Bay district to the brilliant white and red Rhône-style single varietal wines or blends from the Swartland.

Stellenbosch gives us top-class Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, with fresh Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from the Elgin and Elim areas. South African sparkling wine made according to the traditional method is named Méthode Cap Classique (MCC), fine examples of which can be found in Franschhoek and across most of the Cape winelands. And let’s not forget the famous Constantia wine, which was formerly one of the world’s great sweet wines, a tradition that has been revived today.

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Chinese cuisine is loved the world over and with thousands of years in development and many different styles and regions opening to the rest of the world, the popularity of Chinese fare has not waned.  The traditional eight known culinary treasures of China are Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Szechuan and Zhejiang cuisines. Each cuisine is distinctive and has its own unique flavour and style.

These different flavours and styles from the diverse regions and sub-cultures of China have slowly changed over the years due to local preference, fashion, climate and availability of ingredients.  Over time, ingredients and techniques from the cuisines of other cultures and ethnic backgrounds were integrated into the cuisine of the local Chinese people.

This led to a vast range of ingredients, techniques and styles in what is termed Chinese cuisine, leading Chinese people to pride themselves on eating a wide variety of foods while remaining true to the spirit and traditions of Chinese food culture. The challenge with Chinese cuisine as with other Oriental food is to find a wine that can cope with a variety of dishes that are brought to the table at the same time.

An old Chinese saying indicates how highly the cuisine of the Guangzhou region is regarded: ‘To be born in Suzhou, to live in Hangzhou, to eat in Guangzhou and to die in Liuzhou.’ Cantonese cuisine is found everywhere around the world including Hong Kong, Macau and all Chinatowns in most major cities. To find wines to match the many different delicate flavours, textures and varieties of food such as dim sum sometimes requires at least two types of wine. I always seem to look for the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Walker Bay and Elgin districts.

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Zhejiang province is in the south of Shanghai and includes the scenic capital city of Hangzhou, which is renowned for its historic relics and natural beauty of landmarks like the West Lake.  It is also famous for its Longjing or Dragon Well tea, as well as for its delicious local fare such as beggar’s chicken or dongpo braised pork. Dishes like these will certainly go well with old-vine Chenin Blancs such as Sadie Family Wines Old Vine Series Skurfberg (available from BBR), Alheit Vineyards Cartology (available from Vincisive) or DeMorgenzon Chenin Blanc Reserve. Oh to live in Hangzhou!

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MCC with its bubbles can cleanse and refresh the palate as the acidity can often soften the powerful taste of famous Szechuan dishes such as kung pao chicken or mapo tofu. Some sugar residue in wines will work with many spicy Szechuan dishes, acting as a foil to chilli. Acidity alone in wines like a Sauvignon Blanc from Elgin or a crisp Chenin Blanc will also work well. 

Peking duck is a famous duck dish that has been prepared since the Imperial era. It is now considered a national dish of China and I have no hesitation in recommending any of the Newton Johnson great Pinot Noirs (available from Vincisive) or Eben Sadie’s elegant Soldaat Grenache from his Old Vine Series (available from BBR).

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When it comes to reds it’s a little more difficult as the strong tannins and wood-aged wines do not generally work with Chinese food. However, the times that I have tried many of the Rhône-style blends from the Swartland or a Shiraz/Syrah from La Motte and Reyneke with northern lamb hot pots have been successful. 

The list of different Chinese food and South African wines is endless so the most important thing is the absolute enjoyment in trying to find the right match and here experimentation is the key.

By David Wong

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