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July 18, 2021

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Northeastern China delicacies compliment modern wines

CHINA’S epicurean smorgasbord of delicacies is unparalleled. This week the intrepid and learned writers of this paper introduce the unique treats of northeastern China. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled there on many occasions to sample and judge their wines and spirits while also enthusiastically delving into their local cuisine. Not surprising I’ve become a fan of the rich iron bowl meat stews and more exotic fare like braised donkey; however, my topic this week will center on paring wine with two of the northeast’s most common and popular foods. Dumplings and pickled cabbage can be found throughout China, but in many ways their spiritual home is northeast China. Long ago in the nascent days of the earliest Chinese cultures, pre-dynastic peoples started making breads in the Yellow River basin and to the northeast. Archeological digs in the Yellow River Valley yielded examples of stoneware steam cookers dating back to 5,000 BC. The stuffing of primitive steamed buns and the refining and thinning the wraps of dumplings evolved over thousands of years until the resulted in the delicious dumplings we savor today.

The origin and history of pickled Napa cabbage is more controversial and in fact a netizen dispute of sorts broke out a few years back about the historical home of this common delicacy. This is another example of much to do about nothing as the ingredients and preparation methods of traditional Chinese paocai or suancai and Korean kimchi are different.

What we do know is that sometime over 7,000 years ago in the eastern reaches of the Yellow River basin, Napa cabbage was being cultivated. The process of fermentation in China dates back 9,000 years so it’s not hard to image that fermented cabbage is also quite ancient.

Representatives of Genghis Khan are credited by several food historians with bringing fermented cabbage to Europe in the early 13th century, arguably starting the German love affair with sauerkraut. Instead of using the Chinese Napa cabbage, Germans used the local green cabbage.

Like so many signature foods around the world, dumplings and suancai boast august histories and legions of followers. Today, we’re fortunate to be able to embellish these treats with wine. Dumplings are easy to pair with wines, but the sourness of suancai demands a versatile wine with a solid acidic backbone. Southern Burgundy offers a delicious solution.

Situated between Cote Chalonnaise to the north and Beaujolais to the south, Macon is a large area with several notable village and regional level wines. Vines were first cultivated in Macon by the pre-Roman Celts more than 2,000 years ago. During the Roman Empire, Macon was an important trading town that was known for quality foods and wines. For most of its history, Pinot Noir and Gamay red wines were prevalent but during the 20th century white wine production started to supplant that of red wine and today whites represent the vast majority of Macon wine production.

The most important grape in Macon is Chardonnay but one can still find some Gamay and a limited amount of Pinot Noir red wines. For the better part of the past century the wines of Macon were considered daily quenchers rather than fine wines. However, our new millennium has witnessed a marked improvement in quality and the whites of Macon now represent one of France’s best white wine values.

When buying a basic Macon AOC wine, it’s advisable to be selective and only buy wines from reputable producers. Despite quality advances, a number of mass produced, diluted and insipid Macon AOC wines still exist so it makes sense to be selective.

In ascending levels of quality, the wines of this region are organized into Macon AOC, Macon Superieur AOC and Macon-Villages AOC wines. Primeur and Nouveau Macon wines are also produced, but like their counterparts in Beaujolais these wines are seasonal novelties rather than the best representatives of the region. The Macon Superieur AOC denotes wines with at least 11 percent alcohol compared to the 10 percent minimum requirement for Macon AOC wines. At the top of the Macon pyramid are the Macon-Villages AOC wines that are made in and around 43 local villages.

When choosing a Macon wine, be budget conscious. The most famous village with its own appellation is Pouilly-Fuisse but since a frenzy of popularity in the 1980s, these wines have carried a premium price tag. In the Shanghai retail market, be prepared to pay 400 yuan (US$62) and above. Therefore, I suggest choosing better examples of the basic Macon wines that are usually priced under 200 yuan or some of the less recognized villages that offer superior price/value ratios. Villages to look for are Aze, Ige, Prisse, Lugny and Chardonnay, a village named after the region’s most famous white wine grape. The villages of Clesse and Vire now have their own appellations like Pouilly-Fuisse, but are better bargains.

Stylistically, Macon whites vary according to the village and the producer, but in general all good examples are fresh, concentrated, fruity with a pleasant mouthfeel and charming vivacity. All these qualities make them natural companions to Chinese dumplings from the northeast as well as suancai. White wines may dominate the Macon landscape, but the region also produces dumpling and suancai-friendly reds that offer lively fruitiness balanced by good acidity and gentle tannins. Serve the reds chilled, about 14-15 degrees Celsius, and the whites even cooler or about 8 degrees Celsius.

Producers with good Macon wines in Shanghai include Joseph Drouhin, Cordier, Bouchard Pere & Fils, Claude Chonion, Louis Jadot, Albert Bichot, Cave de Lugny and Roux Pere & Fils.

Where to buy in Shanghai
Joseph Drouhin Pouilly-Fuisse AOC
China Wine & Spirits, Room 702, No. 1, Lane 1136, Xinzha Rd, 6087-1811
Cordier Aux Bois d'Allier Macon AOC
Cordier En Faux Saint Veran AOC


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