When it comes to pairing wine with Chinese food, it's important to think about the weight and preparation of the food, not just the more obvious flavors and ingredients. Many dishes depend on a complex blending of flavors to create a delicately balanced dish. In this way, the individual ingredients are there to dance together, rather than show off individually.
The more delicate the dish, the more delicate you'll want your wine to be. The more sauce and strength of flavor in the food, the more heft you want in the wine. For example, delicate dim sum or steamed fish dishes shine alongside a brighter white wine, like dry Vouvray. Fried dishes like spring rolls or fish cakes require a wine that's a bit rounder (try sparkling Vouvray or textured Alsatian whites.) A bold, rib-sticking dish like ma po tofu is generally going to want a sweeter wine with even more weight on the palate, like demi-sec Vouvray.
One way to make sense of all this is to think of the wine as a sauce that accompanies the dish, and accentuates the overall pleasure of the food. Just like the individual ingredients of any dish you're serving are less important than the overall presentation, so too the wine here is just there to dance along with the overall experience and be part of the balance of the meal.
Three easy options for pairing are German riesling, lighter lagers, and plum wine. All three are refreshing and go pretty well with almost any Chinese food choice. But you don't have to limit yourself to only those three classics! Here are some basic tips to keep in mind for branching out to other options.
For certain success, seek out wines without much oak or tannin, and moderate to lower alcohol levels. Too much oak or tannin can sometimes make everything taste bitter, and too much alcohol will set your mouth burning alongside any spicy food.
Be careful with vinegar. Dipping vinegar is tricky to pair with wine. If the vinegar is cooked into a sauce, however, it has caramelized enough to just become part of the overall experience. If you're looking for the ideal dishes to pair, you may want to back away from the vinegar a little, but don't worry if dishes integrate it into the recipe.
Chinese foods are generally easy to match with white wines (especially those with a touch of sweetness), you don't have to avoid reds. Fruit driven red wines like Argentine Malbec or Cru Beaujolais have the freshness and round feeling on the palate that can work well, especially with smoked and roasted meat dishes like Peking duck, or sizzling beef. Seek out Catena Alta Malbec, or wines from Morgon, like Foillard or Lapierre.
Increase the fruit to match the salt! The saltier the food, the more fruit flavor you're going to want to balance it out. Try the reds above, or consider Viognier, such as the one from Domaine d'Astruc. Viognier gives the juiciness that washes the palate, while offering an interesting aromatic lift that complements the complexity of the cuisine.
Pair spice with sweet. A wine with a Iittle sweetness can help to calm and balance the spicy heat in the food you're enjoying. Try an off-dry Prosecco (such as Primo Franco from Nino Franco). If you're going with German riesling but wondering which type to open, match the spiciness of the food to the level of residual sugar (R.S.). If the dish is just slightly spicy, a delicately sweet Kabinett is perfect, while an ultra spicy dish wants a wine with more sweetness...try Spatlese or even Auslese.
About the Artist: Hawk Wakawaka is a wine drawing philosopher with a heart of gold. She also writes the website Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews.