FOOD & DRINK: GRAPEVINE

WINE TO DRINK WITH CHINESE FOOD
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The Independent Culture
DRINKING different soups throughout a meal is, according to the venerable Chinese chef Kenneth Lo, "in a sense a Chinese variation on the Western custom of drinking different wines throughout a meal". Jasmine tea might supplement the soup, as an alternative mouthwash between bowlsful of different dishes and to help the rice go down. But most families would sit down, lunch and dinner, to a table spread with a couple of different thin, light soups, along with at least three other dishes. "We Chinese find it strange that in the West, where soups are drunk independently of other dishes, few people have tried the combination of savoury soups with savoury foods."

Well, soup is all very well, but I have to admit to a slight preference for wine with my food. And there Chinese food poses some problems. Rather more so, indeed, than some hotter, spicier, more flavourful cuisines such as Indian or Thai. Many Chinese dishes are very gently flavoured, not to say bland, and most wines quite overwhelm them. Others are slightly sweet, and you need to find a wine with a corresponding slight sweetness - because drier wines will taste acid and fruitless up against the sugar. And then again, some Chinese dishes are full-bloodedly sweet. Pork spare ribs or sweet-sour chicken would murder even the sweetish wine you'd chosen for the gently sweet Peking duck or Szechwan-style sliced pork; and that sweetish wine, in turn, would taste acid and fruitless. You need a wine of equal sweetness.

Put a range of all these dishes together on the same table, and it is really hard to find a wine that tastes good with the lot. But I've found some pleasant compromises, good with some dishes, pleasant with many others. Setting aside for the moment the sweet-and-sours and the spare ribs, German wines are often the answer, just right with some dishes, maybe a little too powerful with others.

What luck that Liebfrau-milch is on almost every Chinese wine list! In fact, Liebfraumilch is a touch too sweet for most Chinese dishes. A Kabinett is nearer the spot, and a Halbtrocken (half-dry) just right for a high proportion of dishes. From the basic Piesporters or Niersteiners (the ones with no grape named on the label) through the Silvaners and Rieslings, German wines are surprisingly good, and Riesling chimes in particularly yummily with ginger. Australia also makes some Rieslings that work with Chinese food. The more expensive ones (pounds 5 and over) tend to be dry, but cheaper ones are usually distinctly medium-dry, even though the label may not say so.

There's hidden sugar in many "dry" wines; legislation allows for up to nine grammes of sugar (natural or added) in a litre of a wine labelled dry and on sale in Europe. Even at the upper limit, the sweetness may be barely or not at all perceptible except to the well-buffed palate if the wine has sharpish acidity to offset the sweetness (think back to flu, and how lemon juice cuts the sweetness of honey).

"Dry" Champagne gets a special dispensation for extra sweetness. "Brut" sounds ultra-dry, but means, in fact, between six and 15 grammes of sugar per litre, added when they top up the bottle after removing the sediment and before putting in the final cork. The added sweetness helps the wine's high acidity go down. Champagne's flavour goes well with many blander Chinese dishes, while it has just the right sweetness for gently sweet dishes such as Peking duck or sweet corn soup with crab.

Even better - a wine that's a match with an even wider range of dishes - is a Yecla or Valencia "dry" white from south-east Spain. The one I tasted with my Chinese food had six grammes of sugar. It isn't only because it's such a very bland wine that this works - it goes much better with a bigger range of Chinese dishes than many another of the equally bland whites.

Now what about those sweet-and-sours? Liebfraumilch nearly makes it, but this sweet dish really needs a wine of German Auslese level, and Riesling is a really complementary flavour. Riesling is the wrong flavour, however, for sweet-sauced pork spare ribs: Vouvray Demi-sec (actually quite sweet) from the Loire comes closest to a match.

And jasmine tea? Millions of Chinese cannot be totally wrong. And, indeed, jasmine tea is not unpleasant with Chinese food. But it lacks acidity as well as sweetness and does not actively go with it. Nor does the bitterness of the tannin, which tea shares with red wines. (Red wines are in any case almost always too strongly flavoured for Chinese food.) The bitter hoppiness of lager doesn't really go either.

If, like mine, your local Chinese doesn't stretch to Champagne, Valencia or German Halbtrockens, you could always take your own, and negotiate corkage. Or perhaps give in: "Waiter, waiter, put a soup in my glass..."

But if you want to persist with wine, here are some good alternatives to soup:

Excellent value among Brut Champagnes, and on offer at Majestic until the end of July, is the rose Champagne Oeuil de Perdrix, Leonce d'Albe (pounds 11.19 a bottle in an unbroken case, pounds 13.99 in a mixed case). This has a lovely orangey tint and a savoury, delicate flavour with a tinge of honey. And a wonderful find for a Champagne substitute, very like the real thing, is the Domaine de l'Aigle Chardonnay/Pinot Noir Brut, Jean- Louis Denois (pounds 6.75 Findlater, Mackie and Todd, mail-order branch of Waitrose, 0181-543 0966).

A current favourite among the not-quite-dry Australian Rieslings is the 1993 Brown Brothers Rhine Riesling (pounds 5,99 Findlater, Mackie and Todd), a fine, lemony, elegant wine that is not dry despite being over the pounds 5 barrier. For a German Riesling, 1992 Ruppertsberger Nussbein Riesling Kabinett, Ruppertsber Co-op (pounds 4.15 Safeway) is excellent value, crisp, lemony and refreshing. Or try the lovely honeyed and appley 1993 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett, von Kesselstatt (pounds 5.99 Asda), or the similar 1993 Bacharer Schloss Stahleck Riesling Kabinett, Toni Jost (pounds 5.99 Oddbins).

Valencia dry white is never very characterful, but the best of the modern ones are very delicately perfumed, fresh and fruity - and their blandness is exactly what makes them right for Chinese food. Vincente Ganda is one of the most reliable producers. This is the source of the Valencia Dry White, Castillo de Liria (pounds 2.79 Waitrose and pounds 2.99 Victoria Wine) and Tesco Spanish White (pounds 2.69).

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