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September 26, 2021

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Vino deliciousness in Aragon

THANKS to my friends at Shanghai Daily who are introducing culinary delights from Shaanxi, this week I’m privileged to introduce wines that like Shaanxi cuisine — they may not be as famous as their national counterparts but are nonetheless eminently delectable.

The principal ingredients, refined cutting and cooking techniques, and rich flavors of Shaanxi cuisine date back to at least the West Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC). From the early Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC) to modern day Shaanxi cooking has continued to advance and innovate while being influenced by a range of cultures and religions, with Islamic influence particularly strong.

Strong and heavy perfectly describe the style of Shaanxi dishes that commonly feature pungent ingredients like garlic, onion, chili, ginger, cumin and other spices. Vinegar and local spirits are also ingredient mainstays.

Shaanxi people love noodles, especially supersized hand-pulled noodles that are served hot and cold in a wide variety of preparations. When in Xi’an I also like to indulge in calabash chicken (hulu ji), a breaded and fried chicken dish, and roujiamo, a local type of Chinese hamburger in leavened bread.

As in other places like Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, mutton and lamb are often the meat of choice in regional dishes.

Studies have shown that sheep raised at higher altitudes often have different physiological attributes and higher meat quality. With peaks over 3,000 meters and an average overall elevation of 777 meters, Shaanxi is a pretty elevated place. Remarkably, this is also true of the land whose wines deliciously embrace many Shaanxi dishes.

The European country with the highest average elevation is not so surprisingly Switzerland. But number two will stump you. In second place with an average 660 meter above sea level is Spain. Described by some as one big mountain range, 24 percent of Spanish land mass is above 1,000 meters in altitude while 76 percent sits between 500 and 1,000 meters above sea level.

This topographical information is provided just to make the point that despite its relatively southernly latitude Spain is one of the best places to make wine. Among Spain’s 17 regions, the kingdom of Aragon in the northeast of Spain makes some of the Iberian Peninsula’s most intriguing and affordable wines. Reflected in its wines and culture, Aragon is a place of contrasts.

The traditional and historic coexist with the modern and progressive. Witness the majestic Basilica of our Lady of the Pillar, Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar in Spanish, near some of Europe’s most striking and daring modern structures like the Zaragoza Pavilion Bridge. The ancient and modern cohabit harmoniously not only in the field of architecture but also in winemaking.


In this northern elevated outpost of Spanish winemaking, traditional Spanish varieties such as Garnacha, Carinena and Tempranillo thrive along with recent international imports such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and more recently Syrah. A relatively new star on Aragon’s winemaking scene, CAVA sparkling wines combine the traditional Spanish sparkling grapes Macabeu, Xarel-lo and Parellada with French imports like Chardonnay.

Climatically, Aragon is a land of extremes. Overall, the climate is continental, with the Pyrenees Mountains to the north and elevation acting as the main determinants in pronounced seasonal and diurnal temperature differences. Both are advantageous to making more balanced, fresher and higher quality wines. Many of the best vineyards are located at altitudes ranging from 800 to over 1,500 meters.

The four DO (designation of origin) wine regions in Aragon; namely, Carinena, Somontano, Calatayud and Campo de Borja produce about 60 percent of the region’s wines and almost all of the highest quality wines. Young, highly educated winemakers and investment in modern winemaking equipment have combined to transform the somewhat cumbersome and thick wines of the past into fresher, more elegant and balanced styles.

The typical unabashed boldness in style of Aragon red wines makes fine partners to a host of equally bold and brash Shaanxi dishes. These wines are not easily overwhelmed by weighty and pungent foods and in many cases the wines actually benefit from a good dose of oral stimulation.

A spiced lamb dish sitting next to an old vine Aragon Garnacha or Carinena wine portend a wonderfully rustic and full-flavored wining and dining experience. For roujiamo meat buns, I suggest one of Aragon’s boldly styled rose still or sparkling wines; while I love partnering Macabeo whites with my beloved calabash chicken. Whites and rose wines are best with Shaanxi cold noodles while reds are best with hot noodles, especially those that featuring meat.

Aragon wines are not widely available in Shanghai but those on the market have excellent price-quality ratios. For under 200 yuan (US$31) retail, wines including the Selanna Garnacha Syrah Crianza Carinena DO offer a robust and fruity red wine with soft tannins and a respectably long finish.

Other Aragon producers to look for include San Valero, Hermanos, Frontonio and Morca. The robust and heavy nature of many Aragon reds means they perform best slightly chilled or about 16-18 degrees Celsius and require about 30 minutes breathing time.

Where to buy in Shanghai

Jiu Jin Huan, 88 Sichuan Rd N., 400-605-9179
Selanna Garnacha Syrah Crianza Carinena DO
Selanna Cabernet Sauvignon Carinena DO
San Valero Particular Old Vine Garnacha Carinena DO
San Valero Particular Garnacha Carinena DO
San Valero Particular Chardonnay Carinena DO


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