Best Wine with Chinese Food

Wine and Chinese food isn’t a conventional pairing – you might be more tempted to reach for a beer with your favorite Chinese takeout. 

Pairing wine and Chinese food can seem tricky, as it’s a cuisine that covers so many contrasting flavors such as sweet, sour, spicy, and salty. 

As a result, there’s no go-to wine and Chinese food pairing, as ‘Chinese food’ is an incredibly broad label that covers cuisine from many different regions. 

In the west, much of the Chinese food we eat is inspired by Cantonese cuisine, which comes from the Guangdong province of China, in particular, the provincial capital Guangzhou, and the surrounding regions in the Pearl River Delta including Hong Kong and Macau.

A note on Chinese food 

Chinese food is extensive and makes use of many different flavors. Traditionally, these can be categorized into five main flavors: salty, spicy, sour, sweet, and bitter.

Chinese cuisine focuses on emphasizing the harmony of these five flavors, and, according to traditional Chinese medicine, striking a balance between the five flavors can not only improve the overall taste of the food but can also have health-promoting benefits, treat diseases, and aid recovery from injury.

These flavors are derived from different regions of China, with spicy food being popular in central and south China, including Sichuan, Hunan, Yunnan, and Guangxi provinces.

Salty food is popular in the North, where brine-pickled vegetables are popular, as well as the coastal regions, where salt is produced by the evaporation of seawater.

Sweet flavors are popular in Eastern regions of the country, including Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui, and Guangdong provinces, while sourness is popular in the south, especially in Guangxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan provinces.

While bitterness is used in Chinese cooking, it’s rarely used as a standalone flavor. It’s usually used to add a freshness to dishes and to whet the appetite, and bitter flavors are widely found in Chinese medicinal food. 

Best overall wine 

When it comes to identifying the perfect wine for Chinese food, one thing to bear in mind is that usually when you order Chinese food – whether at home or in a restaurant – you’ll usually be ordering several dishes, but unless you have a big enough budget, you won’t be able to order a separate wine for each dish. 

So, is there one wine that accommodates and compliments all of the contrasting flavors found in Chinese dishes? 

Yes – Riesling.

With its high acidity, light body, and subtle sweetness, German Riesling is the perfect wine to match the high salt content in Chinese food. 

For rich dishes with heavy flavors or meat dishes like duck or pork, a sweeter  Spätlese can add balance to the dish.

If you prefer red wine, think low tannins, good acidity, and a light body, like Beaujolais. This fruit-forward and aromatic wine will stand up to a broad range of Chinese dishes, from earthy mushroom flavors to meaty beef-based dishes. 

Wine to pair with Dim Sum

Dim sum is a Cantonese style of eating that includes a large range of small dishes, typically including steamed dumplings, spring rolls, and soya-seasoned meats.

These dishes have mild flavors and a natural savory taste that opens the dishes up to a myriad of options when it comes to wine pairing. 

A Chardonnay is ideal for pairing with Dim Sum dishes, as it’s well suited to fresh and light dishes.

You could also opt for sparkling wine, preferably blanc de blancs Champagne, if you’d prefer some light bubbles with your meal.

A fresh, clean white such as a young Gruner Veltliner or green apple-tinged Picpoul de Pinet would also pair well with Dim Sum – particularly with spring rolls with vegetable fillings and pan-fried dumplings.

Cha Siu Bao is a steamed Barbecued pork bun with salty-sweet flavors, and the rich fillings of this dish are perfectly suited to the refreshing notes of an off-dry Riesling or the lightly sparkling, subtly sweet Moscato d’Asti.

As a rule of thumb, you should avoid heavy tannic red wines with your Dim Sum, as these are likely to be too overpowering. 

Wine to pair with chow mein 

Chow mein is one of the most popular Chinese dishes eaten in the west, consisting of fried noodles tossed with meat, vegetables, plenty of oil, soy sauce, oyster sauce, spices, and usually spring onions. 

In the U.S. chow mein is rich and greasy and calls for a high acidity wine to refresh the palate. 

A Riesling would suit this dish well thanks to its high acidity and subtle sweetness that compliments the savory flavors of the sauces.

Wine to pair with fried rice 

With vegetable, tofu, and shrimp fried rice, go for Lambrusco di Sorbara. This wine is delicate in flavor and has low tannins. For chicken and pork fried rice, Lambrusco Grasparossa is a better choice, as it has higher tannins that can cut through the fat of the meat.

Lambrusco is a fruit-forward wine packed with berry flavors such as strawberries, and blackberries, as well as notes of hibiscus tea with a hint of earthiness.

This makes it perfect for balancing dishes that are salty and greasy, as the acidity, bubbles, and fruitiness will enhance the flavors of the dish. 

Wine with crispy duck and pancakes

Crispy duck is usually deep-fried in the U.S. and is often served with hoisin sauce, shredded cucumber, and spring onion, wrapped in thin pancakes. A fruit-forward Pinot Noir is the perfect accompaniment to this dry and crunchy duck dish.

Wine with sweet and sour dishes

While General Tso’s Chicken has nothing to do with the real General Tso and the tangerine chicken of Hunan province, this is a rich, sweet and sour dish that’s extremely popular in the west. 

The contrasting flavors pair well with an aromatic white wine such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer or Torrontes, which have a touch of sweetness thanks to residual sugar levels which enhance the sweet flavors of the dish.

These same wines should work well with the subtle nuttiness of sesame chicken.

Wine with Sichuan-style spices

Sichuan food hails from China’s Sichuan region and is famous for its bold, pungent flavors owing to its liberal use of garlic and chili peppers, as well as the unique and fiery flavor of Sichuan pepper.

The heat of these dishes calls for a cold sparkling wine that can ease the burn of Sichuan-style dishes – think Prosecco, Asti, Lambrusco, or Brut Champagne.

Aromatic white wines are another fail-safe option when it comes to foods with complex flavors, or add a touch of sweetness with an Auslese Riesling or even a lighter style of Sauternes or Barsac can work well. 

For dishes such as Kung Pao chicken, which contains sweet, sour, and spicy flavors, a dry white wine such as Alsace Pinot Gris is a great choice. 

If you prefer red wine, a light-bodied, youthful Gamay or Pinot Noir will complement the rich flavors.

When pairing wines with spicy foods, steer clear of high tannins and high alcohol content as these will only make hot dishes hotter! 

Wine with Chinese Spare Ribs

Chinese spare ribs consist of pork ribs marinated in a sweet and smoky sauce containing flavors of soy, hoisin, honey, garlic, rice vinegar, ginger, and chili. 

These rich flavors work well with Grenache-based red wines. They’re easy to drink and usually have intense, jammy hints of strawberries and plums, leather, dried herbs, and blood oranges, which work really well with tangy Chinese dishes. 

A fruity red with lower tannins provides balance and enhances the flavors of this Chinese favorite.

Wine with Crab Rangoon 

Crab Rangoon is a crab puff filled with crab meat, scallions, garlic, and cream cheese, and these flavors work well with Vinho Verde, which offers high acidity and notes of citrus and white flowers, making it the perfect accompaniment to seafood in general. 

The high acidity of this wine will also balance out the fat from the cheese and frying oil, while the citrus flavors stand up well to alliums like garlic and scallion.

Red or white? 

When it comes to Chinese food and the broad spectrum of flavors that come with it, light white wine is your safest option.

A light-bodied white wine with high acidity, light body, and subtle sweetness, such as a German Riesling, is the perfect wine to balance out the sweet, salty, and spicy flavors found in Chinese food. 

For lighter Dim Sum meals, red wine will be overpowering, though that’s not to say red wine has no place in Chinese cuisine.

For meaty dishes, such as spicy Kung Pao chicken, opt for a light-bodied, youthful Gamay or Pinot Noir, or for rich Chinese spare ribs, a jammy, grenache-based red wine will perfectly enhance the flavors of the dish. 

Christina Day
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