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Sunday January 20, 2013

Pairing Chinese New Year dishes with wines

Festive cheers: A significant part of the New Year is The Prosperity Toss. For this dish, choose wines
that are as sweet but not too heavy bodied — (pic right) like a bottle of Moscato. Festive cheers: A significant part of the New Year is The Prosperity Toss. For this dish, choose wines that are as sweet but not too heavy bodied — (pic right) like a bottle of Moscato.

Wines that celebrate Chinese New Year dishes.

WHAT wines will you serve up for Chinese New Year? A Champagne, a Grand Cru, a Cult New World wine or something that appeals to all, even non-wine drinkers?

Since it’s a festive time when family and friends gather, an expensive wine comes to mind. Still, whilst it might impress, it does not necessarily mean that the very same wine would be suitable for the occasion or with the food that is served up. Moreover, if you have a large family and lots of friends, serving many expensive bottles of wine might put you out of pocket.

Opening act

Since Chinese New Year is a time for toasting, the best wines are those with bubbles. Traditionally, special moments are celebrated with sparkling wine – especially Champagne. It’s served at coronations, Grand Prix winners spray the cheering crowd with it, and weddings would be incomplete without it.

Naturally, Champagne has become de rigueur for celebrations. It’s nice to know that the wines you serve over the Lunar New Year need not be esoteric or expensive. Save the exorbitant Prestige Cuvee Champagne for a meaningful corporate gift. For Chinese New Year, go for non-vintage Champagne – they typically cost RM200.

Even more affordable options such as sparkling wine from Italy, Spain and the New World might mean you can serve bubbles all though the season.

Proseccos from Italy’s Veneto and Friulli Venezia Giulia region are gaining popularity around the world because of their friendly prices, anti-snob appeal and celebrity endorsements – Paris Hilton has even lent her name to Prosecco in a can!

Similarly, Cava from Spain has been described as affordable and ubiquitous – it’s found in every restaurant and bar in Spain. Most of it does not have a vintage and you don’t have to go to the bother of remembering the names of producers, villages and the like. Of course, compared to Champagne, the bubbles are a little bigger and snobs would not drink it, but pricewise, the typical bottle of Cava (also Prosecco or New World sparkling wine) costs RM70 and you can’t go far wrong here. After all, it’s the pop of the cork and the gush of bubbles that contribute most to marking an occasion as festive.

If you want to perk up your sparkling wine, you can incorporate it into a cocktail. Add a tablespoon of Ribena to your glass of sparkling wine and turn it into a Kir-like cocktail (Kir Royal is made using Champagne and cassis, a French blackcurrant liqueur). Did you know that the famous Bellini is made from mixing Prosecco with peach puree? This Italian cocktail was invented by the founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice.

Both your Kir-like cocktail and Bellini will have a hint of sweetness and are great matches with Chinese New Year snacks such as bak kua, pineapple tarts and even dried plums!

Other ways to give your sparkling wine some verve is to simply drop a small fruit – strawberry, cherry or raspberry – into a flute glass and top it up with wine. Fancy a local nuance? Then add a sliver of ginger to your glass of sparkling wine and grate some nutmeg over it or add a sprig of lemon grass!

And if you drink only Champagne and want a cocktail, the New Year favourite long drink is Barbotage. Make it by lacing a flute glass with a tablespoon of cognac and a teaspoon of Grand Marnier, and then filling it up with Champagne. The drink will go a long way and your guests will remember its unique taste!

At the table

The most famous dish for the season is one that is fun yet tasty – The Prosperity Toss, better known as Yee Sang or Lo Hei. This Teochew-inspired dish was recreated in Malaysia in the 1960s and has now become fundamental during Chinese New Year. 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 the leading taste is sweetness.

Because Lo Hei is sweet, it can make dry white wines and red wines taste relatively bitter, sour, or thin.

Choose instead, wines that are as sweet but not too heavy bodied. Late-harvest wines, demi-sec Champagnes and Spumantes will fit the role splendidly. Moscato is my all-time favourite for this dish – simply because it is lightly sweet, slightly fizzy and very friendly – even those new to wine can enjoy it. The fact that Moscato has low alcohol, is inexpensive and you can drink copious amounts of it is a big bonus.

Lunar New Year white belly fish is another favourite dish. Steamed and dipped in chilli, garlic and soya bean paste the fish is a delicious hors d’oeuvre. Serve a blended white wine (say, a Sauvignon Blanc blend), a Gruner Veltliner or a Chardonnay which is quite complex with toasty notes and that of citrus and some tropical fruits.

White wine is usually a safe bet for seafood but if your dish is abalone, beware. The Chinese New Year Braised abalone might incorporate sea cucumber or mushrooms and some greens. Ultimately, this is a dish with a strong personality and any delicate white wine served with it will be overwhelmed. Additionally, the savoury and salty components in this dish will accentuate flavours, tannins and alcohol in red wine. Thus, the ideal wine is one that is soft and light but fruity and red. Think Beaujolais, Pinot Noirs and Tempranillos.

Pan Cai, the Cantonese New Year mixed vegetable dish has evolved to include scallops, prawns and sometimes duck. The meat and mushrooms in the dish are all strong with umami – a savouriness that makes it a challenge for white wine. Try a Pinot Noir instead.

The wine with sweet cherry flavours and in some cases, a hint of savoury meat, earth or mushrooms, is a good liaison. In addition, the soft tannins in the wine makes for a versatile wine which should match this dish well whether or not meat is included.

Hokkien noodles with pork and crispy fried pork fat in a dark sauce with garlic is at once celebratory (noodle is the symbol of longetivity) and comfortingly delicious. With fatty pork, it is a good idea to choose a wine with good acidity to cut through the fat. However the wine’s fruitiness should be bold enough to complement the dish’s rich flavour. Grenache blends, Spanish Garnacha-based wines, Southern Rhone wines or a sparkling red wine will wash down all the fat and noodles, leaving you to lick your lips and await the next dish!

Whilst salt-baked chicken is not a traditional New Year dish in Hakka households, my Hakka grandmother used to make a special version that was served with ginger oil for the New Year.

Try this banquet staple with a good wine that has tangy acids to contrast the salty taste of the chicken. German Riesling (dry or lightly sweet) is a good bet here.

I have saved the best for last. Eight treasure duck, to me, is the ultimate New Year dish. Stuffed with dried scallops, Chinese ham, gingko nuts, salted egg, chestnuts, mushrooms, carrots and more, this is the grandest and most elaborate of dishes – the result of double cooking – that is deep-fried and then steamed. Multi-flavoured and multi-textured, this dish demands something special: an aged Cabernet, a lovingly matured Chateauneuf du Pape, a decades-old Barolo, or even the Prestige Cuvee Champagne you had been saving to use as a corporate gift!

Edwin Soon is a qualified oenologist and has run wine shops and worked as a winemaker in various countries. He now writes and teaches about wine around Asia.

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