Greater China: Pairing Cantonese Cuisine with Fine Wines

Food & Beverage

There is a common perception among foodies that fine wines and Chinese food don’t mix. While it is true that at most meals the Chinese drink one of the country’s many different types of tea, many Chinese people do frequently like to imbibe alcoholic beverages with their meals – especially when dining with friends and at banquets. And that doesn’t just mean beer.

The Chinese have, in fact, been drinking wine with their meals for centuries. But not the type made from grapes. Chinese wines have traditionally been made from grains rather than grapes. They are clear, and they have very high levels of alcohol.

I once sampled one of these white “wines” at a banquet held for visiting journalists in Qingdao, a coastal city in Shandong Province. If I remember correctly, it was 70 proof!

The first challenge of matching Western wines with Chinese dishes is that not much research has gone into the topic. In the West, wine aficionados have been experimenting with food and wine matching for centuries. In China, this is an entirely new concept.

The next challenge is that not much thought has always been given when putting together restaurant wine lists. In a country where wine drinking is in its infancy, wine distributors can easily persuade F&B managers to buy expensive wines that don’t necessarily complement what is on the menu.

For them, it a simple issue of selling the most expensive wines in order to bolster their their bottom line.

Then there is the issue of “face”. Hosts eager to show off at banquets want to serve wines with “clout”. So they order expensive Burgundies and costly Bordeaux.

Unfortunately, these wines cannot stand up to the heavily spiced dishes of Sichuan and Hunan. And they can overwhelm the delicately flavoured specialties of Guangdong and Fuijian. As with so many trends in Greater China, matching Western wines with Chinese dishes got its start in cosmopolitan Hong Kong.

I first heard about the concept at a wine tasting hosted by the trade commissioner of a foreign consulate several years back. Learning that I was a journalist, a wine enthusiast invited me into a private dining room, where a Chinese banquet was underway.

There were several bottles of wine in the middle of the table. The guests all had little scorecards. They were evaluating the different wines against the various dishes on the menu.

“People think that you can’t match Western wines with Chinese food, but we are determined to prove that you can,” the enthusiast said.

He then informed me that they had not been able to reach a consensus when it came to Peking duck.

“Opinion is divided,” he said. “Would you care to break the tie?”