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December 14, 2017

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Zinfandel: a heady match for spicy mala hotpots

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

As winter firmly establishes itself in Shanghai, local gourmets are seeking delicious ways to fortify themselves. In China, one sumptuous solution is hotpot. These meals on a table come in an astounding range of traditional and creative styles with diverse flavors and ingredients. Personally, I prefer the classics and at the top of my list is mala “numbingly spicy” hotpot.

Sichuan hotpot

Now synonymous with Sichuan cooking, chilies didn’t actually arrive in Sichuan until the late 16th century, introduced to Asia by Portuguese and Arab spice traders.

By the 17th century, chilies were requisite ingredients in Sichuan cooking and several other regional Chinese and Asian cuisines. The earliest written accounts of mala hotpots date back to the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when Chongqing traders are described as throwing a variety of offal and meats into large pots filled with a spicy and salty red soup.

These most certainly were not enjoyed with a nice bottle of wine. Fortunately, today we have this delightful option.

When pairing mala hotpot with wines it’s the Sichuan peppercorns and chilies that present the greatest challenge. The numbing of the palate chilies create what’s been described as a combination of spearmint and Novocain.

But contrary to popular belief, recent studies indicate this stimulates the receptors on your tongue and sharpen your ability to differentiate flavors and textures. In the case of mala this means that despite the numb feeling in your mouth the natural flavors of the ingredients cooked in the pot are accentuated. Likewise, your ability to sense fruit, acidity and tannins in wines is also heightened.

A fine way to offset the heat and pain from chilies is to drink a boldly fruity red wine. One great solution comes from California.

Until the late 20th century, Zinfandel was often championed as an American variety. Then scientists discovered it was actually genetically linked to the popular Primitivo variety in the southern Italian region of Puglia. Then, advanced DNA research discovered that in fact Primitivo vines had even more ancient relatives in Dalmatia in Croatia.

The grape first crossed the Atlantic sometime in the 1800s and the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century is credited with bringing the vine to the Golden State. Zinfandel flourished on the warm and sunny west coast and became one of California’s most popular red varieties.

Today, California boasts several areas that make high-quality Zinfandels including the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, Napa Valley, Lodi, Amador County and Sonoma County.

Sonoma is one of my favorites. Sonoma Zins commonly exhibit raspberry, black cherry, blackberry, blueberry and other fruity sensations along with spicy black pepper, licorice and tobacco notes.

California Zinfandel comes in two basic styles, traditional and modern. The traditional Zin makers allow greater ripeness in their grapes and make very fruity, almost sweet red wines with alcohol levels of 15 percent or above.

The viscosity, headiness and slightly sweet nature of these wines make them ideal partners to spicier mala hotpots as the ripe fruit and sweet nature of the wine offsets the spiciness and assuages the palate.

The modern Zinfandel winemakers favors less powerful and heady wines that are more balanced and elegant. These are also referred to as Bordeaux style Zinfandels. These more nuanced and structured Zins are best enjoyed with more moderately spicy mala hotpots. With either style, when served with mala hotpot, it’s best to chill your wines and serve at about 15 degrees Celsius as the lower temperature will help mitigate any spicy sensations on your palate.

When choosing Zinfandels, I advise sticking to producers that specialize in Zinfandels.

One of my favorites is Ridge Winery in Sonoma County. It’s renowned for predominantly Zinfandel blended wines combining elegance and power.

An excellent example is their Lytton Springs Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley wine, a blend of about 70 percent Zinfandel, 20 percent Petite Sirah and 10 percent Carignan.

This deeply red wine offers generous aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, vanilla and coffee with mouth-coating, slightly spicy soft tannins. Other premium Sonoma Zinfandel producers you can find in Shanghai are Segesio, Ravenswood, Buena Vista and St Francis.


Sonoma is home to many varieties but among the most acclaimed are Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Key term:

The word “big” in the wine world refers to rich, full-bodied wines with relatively high alcohol content, with California Zinfandels being a good example.

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