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October 17, 2021

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Chinese culinary phenomenon embraced by mountain freshness

CUISINES like wines evolve according to local customs and culture. Nowhere is this more apparent and dynamic than in China. Sporting one of the world’s longest and richest gastronomic cultures, China boasts a plethora of regional cuisines based on local ingredients and traditions. While steeped in history, these regional cuisines are always innovating. A recent culinary craze in the south of China is an excellent example.

I first traveled to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region over two decades ago and ever since then have been well aware of the region’s notoriety for exotic and funky foods. The latest epicurean phenomenon as covered in today’s paper is lousifen.

Sometime in the 1970s street venders in the night markets of Liuzhou city, Guangxi started serving a pungent rice noodle dish. The vendors would slow boil local river snails with pork and occasionally chicken bones then add fresh rice noodles with an assortment of other ingredients including pickled bamboo shoots, tofu skin, black fungus and other ingredients along with a potpourri of spices and herbs. Liberal amounts of chili oil and cilantro and peanuts topped off the dish.

Long a local dish that was little known outside of Liuzhou, a confluence of events including the exponential growth of social media and online food delivery service and the COVID pandemic caused lousifen to explode on the national scene. Over a short span of time, lousifen has become significant to Liuzhou and popular nationally.

Like most gourmet delights, lousifen has multiple potential wine suitors. Because of the intensity of flavor and aromas, this dish is best paired with an equally intensely flavored and perfumed wine. Partner wines should be dry or off-sweet, flavorful and acidic to offset the richness and savories of the broth as well as the sourness of the bamboo shoots and other ingredients. The acidity in the wine will help assuage the stinky sensations while cleansing the palate. My lousifen wine partner of choice is Gewurztraminer.

Fruity, sometimes dry and sometimes off-sweet and always intensely aromatic, Gewurztraminer wines are commonly paired with spicy and stinky dishes. In fact, if any wine varietal can handle the multidimensional aromatic and taste sensations of lousifen, it’s Gewurztraminer.

The Gewurztraminer grape is an enigmatic variety that was first cultivated sometime in the early Middle Ages around the small town of Termeno in the northern Italian region of Alto Adige. Also referred to as Italy’s Tyrolean Alps, this is a bilingual region where German is as prevalent as Italian. The German name of Termeno is Tramin and hence the progenitor grape gained its name of Traminer.

The Traminer family of grapes is prone to mutation and sometime in the mid to late 19th century a highly fragrant genetic mutation of the grape appeared on the Tyrolean scene. The first documented Gewurztraminer appeared in 1870 but it wasn’t until 1973 that this name was officially sanctioned by European wine authorities.

Unlike its green-skinned genetic father, the Gewurztraminer grape featured a spotty, dark pink skin. Despite showing great potential, the new grape was not widely planted until relatively recently. Part of the problem was a confusing plethora of different names including traminer musque, traminer parfume and traminer aromatique in France, traminer rosso and traminer aromatic in Italy and roter traminer in Germany.

Gewurztraminer is also difficult to cultivate. The vines bud early, making them vulnerable to frosts, while ideal harvest dates are quite late. The vines are also quite susceptible to pests and viral diseases. Naturally high in sugar and low in acidity, winemakers face the dilemma of picking early to retain freshness while compromising the full development of aromas and flavors; or harvesting later and risking an oily, overly fruity wine that’s woefully lacking in acidity.

So why would any reasonable winemaker choose to cultivate this troublesome grape? Because when everything goes right, it makes one of the world’s greatest and most unique and versatile white wines. Today, some of the best Gewurztraminer wines hail from Alsace and Germany as well as New World regions in Washington State and New Zealand. But my region of focus this week is the grape’s birthplace.

Nestled in and near the majestic Alps is the wine region of Alto Adige. This northern most Italian wine region, sometimes still referred to as South Tyrol, features steep hillside vineyards that slope down to the Adige River and its tributaries. The combination of sloping vineyards with excellent exposure to the sun, sunny days and cool evenings that prolong the growing season and vine-friendly soils results in some of the world’s most fresh and fragrant white wines. Gewurztraminer wines from Alto Adige offer an abundance of exotic floral and spice sensations often with a pleasant slightly oily texture. Excellent Pinot Grigo and Sauvignon Blanc whites are also produced along with a growing number of local and international varieties.

One of my favorite producers in Alto Adige is Franz Haas who makes a beautiful Gewurztraminer wine replete with tropical fruit, lemon peel, nutmeg and rose aromas and a vibrant, fresh and persistent palate. The winery also makes a sophisticated and complex white wine called Manna that’s a blend of Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc and Kerner grapes. Additional top Alto Adige producers with Gewurztraminer wines available in Shanghai are Alois Lageder, Elena Walch and St Michael Eppan. Learning to pronounce Gewurztraminer is for many an acquired linguistic skill while falling in love with lousifen may be an acquired taste; but when enjoyed together, the result can be spectacular.

Where to buy in Shanghai

IL Vino, 421 Xiangyang Rd N., 6153-8163

Franz Haas Alto Adige Gewurtztraminer

Alois Lageder Alto Adige Gewurztraminer


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