Champagne with dim sum: China's wine rulebook takes shape

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Hong Kong sommelier Zach Yu's job of picking the perfect wine for a dinner of steamed Golden Hairy Crab, cumin-scented lamb chops and a stir-fry of Wagyu beef, black truffles and pumpkin is no easy one.

"There are no rules," Yu, the wine expert at Hong Kong's two-Michelin-starred Ming Court restaurant, told AFP, with the excitement of someone convinced they are part of a gastronomical revolution.

Fine dining is a natural extension of an affluent wine culture, so as the wine market booms on China's mainland, the heat is on for chefs and sommeliers to match wine with the wildly, deliciously diverse Cantonese cuisine.

But when it comes to pairing food and wine, China is a blank slate - and this is where Hong Kong steps in.

Hong Kong attracts more than 23 million tourists per year, with 17 million upwardly mobile, mainland Chinese having visited already in the first 10 months of 2010 - many of them wine-lovers.

Last month's Wine & Dine festival in the region outperformed expectations, uncorking 20,000 bottles. Wine auctions regularly break records and cellaring facilities are stuffed to the rafters.

Cynthia Leung of the Hong Kong Tourism Board says the region is "moving fast" to establish itself as a mecca for foodies and oenophiles.

Already several steps ahead of the mainland market, Hong Kong serves not only as a gateway for grand cru into China but as an influential test kitchen for chefs, sommeliers and winemakers.

"It's complicated," admitted chef Leung Fai Hung, an award-winning master chef at Kowloon's InterContinental Grand Stanford.

"Cantonese food focuses on sour, sweet, bitter, hot and salty. We have many different marinades and sauces. We also have different types of cooking - steaming, double-boiling, braised, stir fry, baking. The textures are complex."

When he recently visited Bordeaux, the three-decade veteran chef said he marvelled at how the French seemed to know exactly which wine to serve with every dish.

"I wish I could do it as easily," he said.

But while Western cuisines have had decades, centuries even, to establish pairings that now go unquestioned, Leung, Yu and their peers are tasked with writing the rules overnight.

Slowly, however, a blueprint is emerging.

Champagne's acidity and bubbles pair perfectly with dim sum, Burgundy's delicate tannins and complex nose are a sublime match for crispy chicken and lotus root chips, and the silky but structured tannins of a less-extracted, aged Bordeaux enhance the texture of braised pork belly.

"You don't feel the fatty texture of the meat," explained Leung. Deep fried and baked dishes with intense flavours go well with "richly textured wine like a younger Bordeaux."

"These pairings bring out a richer, more persistent flavour in both the wine and food," he said.

Wine is even influencing the cuisine itself in some cases, with traditional Cantonese recipes simplified and adapted to pair better with wine, cutting back on hot spices and adding complementary aromas.

"We're introducing new ingredients like black truffles," said Yu, noting that the pricey fungus enhances the notes of truffle, spices and sweetness found in barrel-aged Cabernet Franc.

- Chinese dining culture is the key hurdle -

But one unavoidable hurdle remains.

"The really critical thing is the Chinese dining culture," said Yu, pointing at the Lazy Susan, the rotating tray in the centre of the table that is ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants.

"In Western culture, the food arrives course by course. In Chinese culture, we put it all in the middle and the dishes arrive at random. Everyone serves themselves in any order.

"This is not a good way to pair with wine, so we must use a different strategy."

"We focus on one dish - the client's favorite, and choose a wine to go with it," he said, adding with a shrug: "And try not to go too wrong with the other dishes."

Sommeliers like Yu are still a rare breed in Hong Kong. Seven months ago the Ming Court had a meagre wine selection and no sommelier. Now it has Yu, tripled wine sales and a 4,500 bottle wine cellar that includes a 2001 Petrus offered at 38,000 Hong Kong dollars (4,900 dollars).

"I mark it up like crazy because it's not ready to drink and I don't want them to buy it," quipped Yu.

He also numbers his wine list so clients can order without fear of losing face by mispronouncing Western wine names, and helps educate them on new wines.

With most of the world's vineyards far away, the sommeliers and chefs glean their knowledge from their own experiments as well as training sessions offered by wine suppliers.

In town to host one such course in late October, Bordeaux specialist Dewey Markham, Jr. said the pressure on professionals reminded him of the United States when it emerged as a wine powerhouse a few decades back.

"People are not hanging around with a bottle of wine for 30 years," Markham told a packed audience. "They're uncorking it within 48 hours, and they need to know what to eat with it."

John Chan, sommelier and assistant manager at Hong Kong's Spoon by Alain Ducasse, offered this advice:

"Freshness is something we prize. For example, we steam our food because we want to keep the freshness.

"One thing we need to avoid with Cantonese food is oakiness, because the sensation will kill a lot of freshness."

Cut back the oak? With producers eager to help fill the wine lists of China and Hong Kong, the emerging wine palate of foodie Asia could just influence winemaking itself.

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