By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
This Year of the Ox, around Spring Festival, my father would have been 100 years old. Beer or whiskey. He would have raised his glass to celebrate. He drank according to his mood, good or bad. The idea of pairing his drink of choice to enhance the flavor of the steamed fish or stir-fried pork belly never crossed his mind.
I’m not into whiskey. But yes, to beer, as a social drinker, since moving to Seattle. It’s easy when there’s a microbrew or 10 in every neighborhood. The Pacific Northwest is also ripe with wineries, small and large. Wine appreciation came later for me. It helps to have friends who are sophisticated or pretentious, whatever you want to call it, introducing me to wine pairing with food. No more Tsingtao with mapo tofu. Let’s take it up a notch and try wine with geoduck or roast duck to welcome the Ox.
My friends Steve Fellows and Theresa Kwan are my favorite dining partners, especially at their Queen Anne home. Pre-COVID, they prepared multi-course Chinese dinners with wine pairings. A self-proclaimed “unemployed entrepreneur,” Fellows is a fabulous chef. He once bought all the camphor wood for sale on eBay to make the Szechuan dish, camphor-tea-smoked duck served with a dry Chardonnay.
“Just about anything you like can go with Chinese food,” Fellows replied when I asked him recently the challenge of wine pairing with my favorite cuisine.
Chinese food tends to blend several flavors together and be shared communal style. However, he said, “There ARE some strong pairings. Cantonese seafood with a white, Burgundy style wine goes nicely,” he said. Cantonese seafood is usually cooked quickly and lightly to retain the dish’s “yuanwei,” the natural flavor.
Simply put, Burgundy is a wine region in east-central France that produces distinctive white wines from chardonnay grapes and reds with pinot noir grapes.
Fellows is a big fan of Oregon’s pinot noir, a light body red. He said, “Pinot noir requires a special vineyard, upslope with cooling fog. It’s not produced much like cabernet.” The Willamette Valley is Oregon’s leading producer in pinot noir. “Any poultry dish will go well with it.”
As for white wines, Fellows likes chardonnays and recommends unoaked ones from Washington’s Columbia Crest Winery or Airfield Estates. Reasonably priced French chardonnay can also be found and will pair well with your meal.
“Chardonnay is developed to be drunk with seafood. But don’t get the sweet, buttery, and oaky ones.”
Unoaked chardonnays, less sweet and creamy, are aged in stainless steel tanks or older oak barrels. Some white and most reds undergo a natural process that changes the malic acid found in grapes into lactic acid, found in milk, thus the buttery flavor. The types of oak, along with many other variables, add a different dimension to wine.
I spoke recently with Cyril Frechier, a renowned Seattle sommelier and a partner at L&G Distributors, who worked at French restaurants Campagne and the defunct Rover’s.
He said, “The wine barrels can last 50 to 100 years, but more commonly are replaced in 10 or 15 years.”
After three or four years of use, the barrels become neutral and no longer impart flavors of toast and spice. The tannin and structure of the wine is dependent on time spent in new oak barrels versus older barrels or steel tanks.
Too much oak with inferior grapes can give you “oak juice.”
Frechier said, “The general rule is to pair hot, spicy food with wine having residual sugar that aren’t quite as dry, such as pinot gris or pinot blanc.” A riesling can be a good match, too.
“Black peppered food will go well with Austria’s gruner veltliner, which has a white pepper quality to it,” Frechier said. A few of the Washington vineyards in the Columbia Gorge area grow this grape and produce this varietal of white wine.
According to Winefolly.com, gruner veltliner’s “newfound glory is with Asian spices.”
As for red wines, the additional component is tannin found in the skins, stems, and seeds of the grape. If you have eaten unpeeled, seeded grapes, you know that mouth puckering taste. Wine drinkers are well aware of the antioxidant benefit of the reds. But tannin can give some people headaches.
Reds with lighter Chinese food that Frechier recommends are pinot noir or grenache. In general, he advised against high acidity wine unless you’re having a grilled juicy steak. He said, “Match the astringency of the food with the wine.”
He believes a lot of wine pairing is in theory. “It’s just a guide,” he commented.
Taste is also subjective. “One ingredient in a dish can change everything,” he said, “No two chefs are going to cook the same even with the same dish.”
Frechier said, “Some top chefs taste the wine first and then create a dish to go with it. This gets the closest pairing.”
Since most of us are cooking more at home these days, Frechier suggests experimenting and creating “an ensemble” if you want to learn more about wine pairing. Analyze both wine and food to try to get a concept of what the flavors are.
“You want to find a balance, find the harmony between them—the saltiness, acidity, sweetness, and the umami,” Frechier said.
I’ll drink to that.
May your Year of the Ox be filled with balance and harmony. And happy birthday to my father.
Becky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.