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Wine and Food Wednesday
The Chinese Affinity For Red Bordeaux—The Proverbial “Bull In A China Shop”

By Stephen Eliot

A marriage made in heaven? Or a culture clash? I know my answer.

One of the obvious truths that struck me early in my wine-and-food education is the close affinity regional wines have with regional cuisines…oysters with the bracing cool-climate whites of the western Loire, the charcuterie of Alsace with Gewurztraminer and Riesling, the rich and rustic dishes of Southern France with the savory Red wines of the Rhone…well, you get the idea. It is just common sense, really. As I have on numerous occasions reminded my culinary students, if you want a good idea about what food might pair well with a given wine, just look at the popular foods found in the region where the wine is grown. Yes, it makes sense to me.

How then, do you explain China’s utter infatuation with red Bordeaux? I mean the people in China eat Chinese Food! I was a “China Watcher” in my younger years. I spent much of my undergraduate education and a good many years of graduate school studying modern Chinese history, so I am intimately familiar and have a very long love affair with Chinese cuisine. I eat it and I cook it…and experience has taught me that high-tannin Cabernet, or big reds of most any kind, are not pleasant partners to classic Chinese cuisine. What that says to me is that the Chinese have a lot to learn…either that, or that they are not drinking First-Growth Claret and Grand Cru Côtes de Nuits reds with dinner.

Now, most everyone who follows the business of fine wine is aware of the profound effect that China has had of late on the prices of some of the world’s greatest and most collectable wines. China, in fact, seems to be singular in their support of top-end Bordeaux, but, it has been claimed, that the interest seems less driven by true wine appreciation and more by the pursuit of prestige. I have more than once seen statistics that indicate that the vast majority of fine wine purchased in China is by way of gifts of status, and that those sales spike around certain holidays.

The daily drinking of wine with meals even in wealthier urban centers is far from commonplace, and I do not expect to see regular wine consumption to be part of rural life in China for many years, if ever. I would argue, however, that if China is to ever become a wine-drinking nation, then it will not be big-bodied reds that pave the way.

The weightier, high-protein dishes that mesh so well with such wines are simply not on the menu. The big hunks of expensive-to-raise-meats that require vast pasture lands simply do not exist in a country where most of whose arable land reached full use some six or seven hundred years back. Bits of beef, lamb, chicken and pork deftly married with vegetables and complexly seasoned and sauced, an occasional whole fish or lobster or duck, perhaps, but, while I confess to relishing great Pinots with classic Peking Duck, there is no Boeuf Bourguignon, no Entrecote Bordelaise, no Yankee Pot Roasts to soak up the tannins and soften the astringency of hefty red wines.

I would also argue that great Chinese food is one of the most complex and intricately balanced of all the world’s cuisines. Every ingredient seems to be perfectly fit, and if one piece is out of place, then the whole dish collapses, and big wines, and that includes whites like ripe, oaky Chardonnay, too often behave like the proverbial “bull in the china shop” and cause a cacophonous mess.

So, what to drink? It has become fairly trite to rush to Riesling, but trite answers usually become so for a reason. Great Riesling is itself a remarkably balanced, wonderfully fine-tuned wine, and it rarely hits with the in-your-face-force of the Cabernet/Chardonnay/Syrah gang. Riesling’s remarkable tension of sugar and acid seems to balance the sweet/sour/spicy aspects found in so much of Chinese cuisine, and it will not upset the balance of the delicate seafood dishes of the south coast. I have had good success with some of the slightly sweet Chenin Blancs of Vouvray and Touraine, and good Gewurztraminer, if not too soft and sweet, is still a good fit with mildly spicy fare. Sparkling wines, as long as they are not overly austere and acidic, can work wonderfully as well, and, if not likely to wow, most mannerly whites will get the job done.

It will be most interesting to see how the China’s taste for wine evolves over the next decade or so.


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No Subject
by Jason
Posted on:11/17/2011 10:30:15 AM

You're missing the point.  Wine culture in China has nothing to do with food pairing, that's a western bias.  The Chinese value wine as a status symbol, to display their new wealth.  Thus, the crazy prices they're paying for 1st growth and other rare wines.

No Subject
by gdfo
Posted on:11/17/2011 10:44:01 AM

Perhaps the chinese people who are buying the big reds are also eating some western style dishes.  Or is that too easy? 

Yes, I am sure that there is some status related to it also! 

Bull In The China Shop
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/17/2011 11:36:31 AM

Last August, I traveled to Montreal on holiday and ate at the fabulous Le Piment Rouge where the food was better than anything that passes for upscale Chinese here in San Francisco.

The restaurant had a very good wine list, from which we picked a couple of Rieslings, one just off-dry and one with about 1% of RS.

The longest listing on the wine carte however was for upscale Bordeaux. The vintages stretched back forever. No one in the restaurant was drinking Bordeaux of course, but the restaurant still had made an enormous investment in wine it was unlikely to sell except to folks for whom spending money was more important than functional wine and food pairings.

Let's be clear, however. The Chinese are not the only people in this world who overpay for wines with fancy names. How else to explain Screaming Eagle?

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