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January 9, 2011

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A resolute quest for fine wines

Making New Year's resolutions is an ancient practice thought to have started with the Romans. Some believe the practice began in 153 BC when the mythical Roman god Janus was placed at the head of the Roman calendar. Janus is depicted as having two faces, one that looks back at the past while the other looks into the future, thus encouraging the Romans to make promises to reform bad habits and make positive changes in their lives. True or not, the habit of making New Year's resolutions is popular in many parts of the world. One resolution that I make every year is to continue the delicious endeavor of pairing the wines of the world with Chinese cuisine. Therefore, as in previous years, I'm happy to share my 2011 New Year's wine resolutions along with some suggestions for pairing with classic Chinese dishes.

Drink More Marlborough, Hawke's Bay & Oregon Pinot Noir

The three most interesting new world regions for Pinot Noir are unquestionably Marlborough and Hawke's Bay in New Zealand and Oregon in the United States. The reasons are the relatively cool climates and winemakers dedicated to making something special and not taking the corporate route of trying to please everyone. The best Pinot Noir wines from these two regions have their own distinct characters with the Oregon Pinots being more rounded with softer fruit and tannins and overall more feminine in style, while the Marlborough Pinots having more in-your-face, racy fruit-driven qualities. Both styles of wine are well worth discovering in 2011. The fruitiness and intensity of these new world Pinot Noirs make them suitable for strong-flavored and savory meat dishes such as Sichuan smoked duck with tea leaves and spices (桂炉樟茶鸡).

Understanding the Best Wines of China

One of my resolutions for 2010 was to discover more about South African wines. That continuing effort has been both enlightening and delicious. In 2011, I plan to taste and learn more about wines made in China. I've had the privilege and good fortune to travel around the world tasting exceptional wines but I have never visited a region or winemaker in China. For many years I found some Chinese wines merely drinkable and others outright undrinkable. But China has made substantial progress in making quality wines. The leaders tend to be small or medium-sized wineries with winemakers dedicated to making wines that reflect the special terroir of China. I've never doubted that China would one day make very good or even excellent wines, I only knew that it would take time to learn the terroir and what grapes best to cultivate on specific plots of land. The vines also need to get older. This year I plan to taste and hopefully visit some of the emerging stars of the Chinese wine industry such as Grace Vineyard in Shaanxi, Silver Heights in Ningxia and Catai in Shandong. This trio of producers is helping to lead the way in transforming China into a quality wine producer. I look forward to a future when my wine friends in Europe will ask me to bring a few select bottles of Chinese wine when I visit them, just as I ask them to do for me when they visit China.

As we do with western dishes, when pairing Chinese wines with Chinese dishes its important to match similarities or contrast differences. For example, enjoy the Grace Vineyard Tasya's CabernetSauvignon with Shaanxi-style lamb chops with special sauce (手抓羊排) as the ripe sweet fruit flavors beautifully complement the lamb while also offsetting the spiciness of the dish.

Give Rosé Wines in China Another Chance

Don't get me wrong, I have always loved rosé wines. My problem with rosé wines is less with the wines themselves and more with the transportation and storage of the rosés we buy in China. For many years in Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region the rosé wines I tasted would be flat and lack the exuberant fruit and floral qualities that make these wines so special. Long ago my father told me rosé wines always taste better the closer they are to the winery where they were made. Rosé wines are among the most sensitive wines to travel and storage, and therefore often taste dull in China. So in my 2010 tastings of rosé wines I was surprised how many actually tasted quite good. Is this because of more careful shipment and storage? Probably, but I believe it is also a conscious decision by winemakers to make rosés that handle the rigors of travel and storage better. In particular, the Spanish rosato wines with their longer skin contact time seem to retain their vibrancy better than many other rosé wines. These hearty rosé wines are lovely companions to shellfish dishes including one of my favorites, the elegant Colossal Shrimp Alexander (亚历山大凤尾虾).

And one more resolution as I taste all these great wines with Chinese food in 2011, I resolve to do more exercise!

Six wines recommended for your New Year resolutions

Marques de Riscal Rosado, 2009

"from the historic Rioja producer famous for their red wines comes a charming rosé with a deep pink to light red color, lively nose of red berries and rich red fruit flavors with a surprisingly long and fresh finish"

Grace Vineyard Muscat Rosé

"in a fun and funky bottle, this wine has a pale pink color, intriguing nose of cherries and roses with honey notes and ripe peach and candied fruit flavors; the sweet quality of this wine is balanced by the good acidity"

Silver Heights The Summit

"perhaps the top wine from talented winemaker Emma Gao, this intriguing 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Cabernet Gernischt, 20 percent Cabernet Franc blend has a dark ruby red-purple color, blue and black berry nose with smoky notes and concentrated fruit and oak flavors with a long round tannic finish"

Domaine Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir

"owned by the Burgundy producer of the same name, this wine features a dense red color, pungent red and black aromas and weighty black cherry and exotic spice flavors with good acidity"

Forrest Estate Marlborough Pinot Noir, 2008

"John Forrest is a friend and also one of New Zealand's most dynamic winemakers; this wine has a bright ruby red color, lively red fruit nose and lovely cherry and red berry flavors with a long clean finish."

Tahuna Hawke's Bay Pinot Noir, 2009

"focusing on the Pinot Noir variety, Tahuna winery is making some of the best Hawke's Bay Pinots; this wine has a deep ruby red color, ripe cherry nose and lively and complex palate with smoky notes and round tannic finish"


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