Tersina Shieh is a wine expert who promotes wine culture in Greater China. She is a wine consultant, marketer, event organiser, winemaker, food/wine pairing adviser, wine judge and writer, based in Hong Kong. She makes wine, judges and writes about wine, organises wine events and is passionate about wine. She has made wine in England, Portugal, South Africa, China and New Zealand.
Rewriting Wine 101 is a fortnightly Foodie article where we take wine knowledge one step beyond the basics with Tersina, explaining wine in a no-nonsense way and getting rid of the barriers which makes wine consumption at times divisive.
This week’s bottom line: food and wine pairing is all about pairing flavour intensity and weight. It’s not about the colour of food or wine, and further, is no precise right or wrong in food and wine pairing. It is all down to personal experience and our culture.
Is ‘Red Wine with Meat, White with Fish’ Still the Rule?
Food and wine pairing is easy and everyone can do it!
The old saying is that red wine goes with red meat and white wine goes with white meat. However, this is at best only half correct. Think about chicken–we cook it in so many ways from steamed (白切雞), with ginger and sauce (沙薑雞), crispy chicken (炸子雞), with oyster sauce (蠔油炆雞) to with chestnut in clay pot (栗子炆雞煲). I don’t think any one wine can go with all these different chicken dishes, let alone white wine. Similarly, stir-fried pickled ginger with beef (子薑炒牛肉) has a very different weight and intensity compared to the simmered beef with hot chilli pepper broth (水煮牛肉). Even in western cuisine, grilled salmon is oily and meaty but grilled cod is light and delicate.
Food and wine pairing therefore should not be based on colour, but the intensity and weight of the dish and the wine. Steamed chicken (白切雞), is light and delicate, so logically it will go with an equally light and delicate wine such as a Riesling or Chablis (made from cool climate Chardonnay). For the chicken marinated in ginger (沙薑雞), the sauce adds flavour to the meat, so the delicate Riesling or Chablis may be overpowered by the sauce. But a richer white Burgundy (also made from Chardonnay but from the warmer region) would be able to stand up to the flavour. Other alternatives would be Pinot Gris, a Rosé or a light red such as Valpolicella or a German Pinot Noir.
Reisling via Betches
Moving to the heavier braised chicken in oyster sauce (蠔油炆雞), it is much richer and more intense, so we would need a heavier Napa Chardonnay (if you want to stick with Chardonnay). Otherwise, you may consider a Viognier or a white wine from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. But there are also a lot of reds that can go with this dish, such as Merlot, a medium-bodied Bordeaux, Central Otago Pinot Noir or a South African Syrah. How about chicken with chestnut in clay pot (栗子炆雞煲)? To be honest, a red would be much better with this dish than a white. The clay pot style is hearty with a sense of warmth. Drinking a white wine, no matter how heavy it is, will be like drinking water. Go with a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, a South African Pinotage or a Barossa Shiraz!
Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon via Wine.woot
You see the point? Food and wine pairing is all about pairing flavour intensity and weight, not about colour of food or wine.
But more importantly, there is no precise right or wrong in food and wine pairing. It is all down to personal experience and our culture. We in Hong Kong may not have a wine culture (yet) but it doesn’t mean we can’t have one later or that we have to follow the western way. Westerners normally cannot handle very spicy food, and so advocate for off-dry or sweet wine with chilli dishes, whereas Asians might like to accentuate the spiciness (like my Thai friend) and choose a red wine instead. Similarly, our culture is to have a few dishes to share and have them all together (as opposed to dish by dish), so it could well make sense to have more than one wine open on the table, or at least a light option and a heavier wine option.
What we have to do is experiment and explore. We may not like a particular pairing but trying it we will discover interesting matches along the journey while help to refine our taste. Just don’t be afraid of diving in and taking a risk. We don’t need people to teach us what to eat, so why would we need people to teach us how to drink, or what wine to drink?
While there is a plethora of apps for wine pairings of all kinds, Flavour Colours is an iPhone/iPad App (sorry, no Android version yet) pairs Chinese food and wine and it’s pretty good at doing so. Plus it’s free to download. Have fun pairing!