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January 12, 2012

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Finding right wine for Dragon Year

WE judge good wines by certain attributes in categories like appearance, aroma, taste, texture and persistence, but all good wines are embellished by a good story. This year when considering which wine to enjoy over the Chinese New Year you may want to find wines that have some relation to dragons. Of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals only the dragon is a mythical beast. Therefore, the art of appreciating wines over the holiday should be done with imagination and inspiration.

Short dragon story

Nearly all the world's ancient cultures have stories of dragons leading some to actually believe they existed. Somewhere deep in the collective memory of mankind is there a reason that caused diverse ancient cultures to tell stories of remarkably similar beasts? Did ancient cultures encounter dragon-like beasts or did they just confuse the bones of the long extinct dinosaurs as dragons? I have no idea, but it is intriguing that ranging from the Mayan sculptures, Native American rock drawings to Greek and Roman mosaics and Asian pottery the depictions of dragons have remarkable similarities. Some are water creatures, others fly but all are easily recognizable as dragons.

The earliest depictions of dragons in Chinese culture come from Xinglongwa cultural sites. A dragon statue from the Yangshao culture in Henan Province is believed to be nearly 7,000 years ago. Numerous jade amulets have been found from the Shang Dynasty (16th century-11th century BC). As the millenniums passed, the symbol of the dragon remained important in China. Today the symbol of the dragon still has pertinence and is the most popular and fortuitous of the 12 zodiac creatures. Therefore, I suggest it's a pleasurable endeavor to pick wines that share qualities with dragons.

Dragon vintages

One of the easiest ways to pick wines that are seamlessly associated with the dragon is to pick a wine from one of the previous dragon years. The last dragon vintage was the year 2000 that was a solid vintage throughout most of Europe but especially good in Bordeaux. You'll have to pay a premium price for this great Bordeaux vintage but most of the wines from this vintage are drinking beautifully now. The prior dragon vintage in 1988 yielded fairly tannic wines in Bordeaux and was an especially good vintage in Champagne. If you have the good fortune to have cellared a top Champagne from 1988 your palate will be richly rewarded as the best of them are still fresh and vibrant with a level of complexity that only age can bring.


Tannins provide structure and strength to red wines and make them age worthy. Dragons are said to live for thousands of years, which is admittedly a lot longer than even the best wines but the parallels are clear. Another factor that ties tannic wines to dragons is the ancient Hebrew language word "tannin" that referred to a dragon-like aquatic monster. The mystical creature was mentioned in the Old Testiment. So wines with strong tannins are yet another way to embellish your holiday festivities, especially with any red meat dishes.

Five toes

Distinct from Japanese dragons that have three toes and Korean dragons with four toes, proper Chinese dragons always have five toes. Wines certainly don't have toes but they do have grapes so why not pick a wine made of five varieties as a fun way to celebrate the Chinese New Year? Some Bordeaux blends have a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot and would deliciously pay homage to the dragon. Or you can try a top Portuguese wine with five native varieties.

Fish friendly

Whole fish is traditionally served during the holiday. One of the most popular is the sweet and sour Mandarin fish that is often served at the Chinese New Year's Eve dinner but not eaten until the next day.

The Chinese phrase "nian nian you yu," meaning every year there is fish, is a homophone for the phrase "be blessed every year." The Chinese pronunciation of the character for fish is also the same as profit, making the fish particularly fortuitous.

Since fish is likely to be on the menu I suggest a clean and acidic Sauvignon Blanc, especially the intense and aromatic Sauvignon Blancs from the Marlborough region in New Zealand since they pair well not only with fish but also with the other dishes you are likely to enjoy at the meal. Perhaps it's no coincidence that the Marlborough wine festival in February this year will feature the popular Kiwi band Dragon.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc, 2010
Region: Marlborough, New Zealand
Varieties: Sauvignon Blanc
Aging Method/Potential: Light oak aging/6-8 years.
Serving and food pairing: Serve at 10°C; excellent with flavorful seafood dishes including raw or baked oysters and steamed or broiled lobster as well as Chinese style fish.

the wine that started the Sauvignon Blanc sensation in New Zealand, this cult status wine literally jumps out of the glass; the wine has a pale yellow color with hints of green, explosive aromas of citrus and tropical fruits with herbal nuances and rich flavors of green apple and citrus fruit and a long fresh finish.

Miguel Torres Fransola Sauvignon Blanc, 2008
Region: Penedes, Spain
Varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Parellada
Aging Method/Potential: 50% in new American and French oak for 8 months/enjoy now or within the next 5 years.
Serving and food pairing: Serve chilled, about 10-12°C; this complex wine deserves an elegant seafood dish like steamed lobster or fish.

from an elevated single vineyard in Penedes featuring the ideal sunny days and cool evenings; this complex wine has a light golden yellow color, intense typically Sauvignon Blanc aromas of yellow and tropical fruit with mineral and oak nose and concentrated tropical fruit and vanilla flavors with a long pleasing acidic finish.

Casa de Sabicos Alentejo (DOC), 2006
Region: Reguengos, Alentejo, Portugal
Varieties: Aragonez, Trincadeira, Alicante, Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon
Aging Method/Potential: 12 months in new French oak barrels and 12 months bottle aging/approachable now and can be cellered for 7-8 years.
Serving and food pairing: Allow 20+ minutes breathing and serve at 16°C; serve with flavorful meat dishes including Hunan-style assorted cured meat and Sichuan-style marinated beef with five spices.

four Portuguese varieties with some Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine features a deep garnet color, lively blackberry aromas and harmonious almost jammy flavors of plums and other dark fruit with hints of dark chocolate and vanilla along with good acidity and subtle tannins and a pleasantly long finish.

Joseph Phelps, Insignia, 2006
Region: Napa Valley, California, USA
Varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot & Malbec & Cabernet Franc
Aging Method/Potential: 2 years in oak/15-20 years.
Serving and food pairing: Serve at 18°C, this is a powerful wine with ample tannins that needs several hours of breathing to soften; match with full flavored meat and cheese dishes including roasted game, wild pheasant and smoked wild turkey.

insignia is one of California's consistently excellent red wines; the 2006 wine features a dark black-purple color, robust aromas of sweet plum, chocolate and spices and concentrated ripe black and red fruit and exotic spice flavors.


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