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October 11, 2018

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Argentine wine to enliven any vegetarian banquet

Isacs is the founder and CEO of EnjoyGourmet, a leading gourmet digital ( and print media company in China. He has authored over a dozen wine and food books including the awarded ISACS Guides and other gourmet books and is a wine consultant to governments, wine regions and organizations. He also hosts wine events for leading organizations and companies throughout China. Contact John via

Vegetarian cooking in China originated from the kitchens of Buddhist and Taoist monasteries. As covered in today’s iDEAL cover story, vegetarian dishes adorn the pages of some of China’s greatest literary treasures including the epic “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en.

For more than a millennium, China’s vegetarian food developed into a sophisticated art form. Skilled chefs create masterpiece vegetable dishes and are extraordinarily adept at using a variety of protein-rich foods to imitate the flavors and textures of meat. Tofu and an assortment of fungi are especially popular in mock meat dishes.


Despite being a committed carnivore, I believe no meal is complete without vegetables. I admire vegetarians who for reasons of religion, health or compassion for animals abstain from meat. For these purists and people like myself who enjoy veggies, the pairing of wines with vegetables is an important topic.

When paring wines with vegetarian dishes, it is a good idea to follow a few tried and tested maxims. The first is to pair lighter dishes with lighter wines and heavier or more earthy dishes with more robust wines. Simply prepared and flavored leafy green vegetables, bamboo shoots, spouts and corn find complementary partners in light and lively white wines that augment the original subtle flavors and textures. More heavily seasoned dishes and those that include mushrooms or flavorful soya products are appropriately served with heartier white or red wines.

In all cases, the flavors of the dish and wine should supplement each other without one overpowering the other. In most cases, whites are easier to pair with vegetarian dishes and one exceedingly vegie-friendly white wine comes from some of the highest vineyards in the world.

Argentina seems to have a unique talent for adopting unappreciated varieties that have nearly disappeared from the Old World and making them into New World wonders.

Malbec is an excellent example. When winemakers in Bordeaux moved away from this difficult red variety in the late 19th century their counterparts in Mendoza, Argentina, gradually embraced the grape and the rest is history. Today, Malbec is unquestionably the flagship wine of Argentina.

Another varietal on the up-and-up in Argentina that was saved from Old World obscurity is Torrontes.

The best Torrontes wines come from the northern wine regions of Argentina, especially Salta. To the south, Medoza and San Juan Valley also make commendable Torrontes wines.

The two most famous sub-regions of Salta are Valle Calchaqui and Cafayate that border on the Andes. These regions are home to the highest vineyards in the world ranging from 1,500 to over 3,000 meters above sea level.

The extreme circadian temperature range — hot days and cold nights — is key to quality Torrontes wine. Hot days with plentiful sunshine and cool evenings result in a long, slow ripening of the grapes, essential to making quality Torrontes wines with greater freshness, concentration and complexity. Torrontes wines from other regions at lower elevations may be pleasant thirst quenchers but they usually lack the aromatic intensity and acidity of the Salta wines.

Other factors key to quality are low yields and careful temperature control throughout the winemaking process. These grapes are prone to oxidation.

Well-made Torrontes are stylistically fresh, aromatic, with moderate acidity and a smooth round mouthfeel. On the nose they are often quite sweet but pleasingly dry on the palate; perfect as a refreshing aperitif or paired with delicate vegetarian dishes.

In addition to being food-friendly, these wines are usually very good value. Even premium varieties in Shanghai usually retail under 200 yuan (US$28.9).

Sometimes, another white variety, usually Chardonnay, is added to Torrontes for body or texture. The INCA Calchaqui Valley Torrontes Chardonnay, 2010 is an excellent example.

Predominantly Torrontes has a light golden yellow color with greenish hints and plentiful floral and citrus aromas and flavors. The Chardonnay adds weight and texture to the wine while retaining the fresh and aromatic qualities of a good Torrontes.

Conversely, Torrontes is sometimes added to a predominantly Chardonnay wine to add fragrance and freshness.

One fine example is the Callia Alta Chardonnay Torrontes from San Juan Valley, the second largest wine producing region in Argentina after Mendoza. This wine features a light golden color with most of the color depth contributed by the Chardonnay, a lively citrus and peach nose with slight tinny or mineral notes and nicely intense lemon and lime flavors with good persistence.

Other good Torrontes producers with wines in Shanghai are Alta Vista and Colome in Salta and Trivento in Medoza.

Torrontes don’t age especially well, so you should drink them young.

This is especially important in Shanghai where the extra travel and occasionally suspect storage frequently prematurely age wines and rob them of their freshness. A good rule when purchasing Torrontes is to pick nothing more than 3 years old. Due to their relatively high alcohol content, typically between 13 and 14 percent, and moderate to high acidity, they are best served well-chilled.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Varieties: The most acclaimed wines of Salta are made from the Torrontes grape with other aromatic Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer whites also produced.

Key term: Aromatics is a wine term used to describe white wines with expressive aromas.


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