The essential guide to pairing wines and bubbly with your grand Chinese New Year feasts, requisite yu sheng and traditional nibbles
Chinese New Year is a time for toasting, which means that bubbles are called for—at least in our book. But before you pop a prized Prestige Cuvée, rest assured that more affordable alternatives will do just as well. Consider non-vintage champagnes along with sparkling wine from Italy, Spain and the New World. The bubbles may be that much bigger, but the friendly prices mean that you can serve your sparklers throughout the season. After all, it’s the pop of the cork and the gush of bubbles that contribute to the festivities.
To make your bubbles go the extra mile, turn them into cocktails like Kir Royale and Bellini. These come with a hint of sweetness and are great matches with Chinese New Year snacks such as bak kua, pineapple tarts and even dried plums. For a local twist to your sparkling wine, add a sliver of ginger and grate some nutmeg over it or add a sprig of lemongrass.
The requisite dish for the season is probably yu sheng. Featuring raw fish, strips of crunchy jellyfish, daikon, carrots, pickled ginger, and liberally tossed with vinegar, plum sauce, sesame oil and other ingredients, the dish is complex in flavour and texture, but its leading taste is sweetness. This can make dry white wines and red wines taste relatively bitter, sour or thin. The solution—pick wines that are as sweet, like late-harvest wines, demi-sec champagnes and spumantes. Moscato is an all-time favourite simply because it is lightly sweet, slightly fizzy and novice-friendly. The fact that Moscato is low in alcohol and inexpensive, and you can drink copious amounts of it, is a big bonus.
Lunar New Year white belly fish with roe is another popular dish. Steamed and dipped in chilli, garlic and soybean paste, the fish makes for a delicious hor d’ouvres. Pair it with a blended white wine (say a Sauvignon Blanc blend), a Grüner Veltliner or a Chardonnay with toasty notes and scents of citrus and tropical fruit.
When considering pairing options, bear in mind that sour flavours in food will bring out fruit flavours in wine, making it taste less dry. As such, when serving dishes such as steamed grouper with preserved vegetables, opt for white wines like Chenin Blanc, Semillon or Riesling, which will go down very nicely.
Pen cai, the Cantonese fortune pot of mixed vegetables and traditional delicacies like mushrooms, braised meats and a strong rich stock, is a New Year must-have with a strong umami presence. This makes it similarly challenging to pair with white wine; try a Pinot Noir instead. The wine with its sweet cherry flavours, soft tannins and in some cases, hints of savoury meat, earth or mushroom flavour makes a good and versatile companion.
The ultimate Chinese New Year dish is arguably the eight-treasure duck. Stuffed with dried scallops, Chinese ham, gingko nuts, salted egg, chestnuts, mushrooms carrots and more, deep-fried and then steamed, this is an elaborate showcase of flavours and textures. Accordingly, it demands something special to pair alongside—an aged Cabernet, a matured Châteauneuf du Pape, a decades-old Barolo, or even the Prestige Cuvée champagne you have been saving.
But perhaps the best bet for satisfying one and all is simply to offer two wines at your Chinese New Year table: a spicy white like a Gewürtztraminer, and a smooth red such as Merlot. In a crowd, there will always be some who will enjoy reds and others who prefer whites. Naturally, the wine lover who will toast to both will stand to gain the most!
This was first published in Wine & Dine’s January 2017 issue – Chinese New Year Wine Pairings, ‘Drink to Prosperity’