Chopsticks and wine


Editor’s note: In September 2011, C-VILLE’s food and wine writer, Megan Headley, arranged a dinner at Peter Chang’s China Grill to introduce local winemakers to our city’s most famous chef. The meal turned into a celebration of Charlottesville relationships that bore additional fruit this past weekend when Jefferson Vineyards winemaker Andy Reagan and master chefs Peter and Lisa Chang teamed up for a Chinese New Year dinner hosted by the James Beard Foundation and film producer Stanley Tucci. Megan was there, as were Gen and Mary Lee, the local faces of Peter Chang’s Charlottesville restaurant. Tucci is currently working on a film version of Peter Chang’s life, following his improbable rise from an impoverished upbringing in rural Szechuan Province to his lofty perch as one of the most celebrated Chinese chefs in the United States. The documentary short film below was created by Anwar Allen of Humbledown Productions.

When we made our reservation at Peter Chang’s China Grill, manager Gen Lee asked us to bring wine because he doesn’t love their list. The request came as no surprise. Wine certainly isn’t the first pairing that comes to mind when you think of fiery hot and intensely spiced Sichuan cuisine. Beer, yes, or maybe even small sips of water between tears.

Go Virginia wine!
Sales of Virginia wines reached an all-time high this fiscal year, increasing by 11.4 percent from last fiscal year. That’s 47,327 more cases and 567,924 more bottles than last year!

The Chinese traditionally pair their dinners with baijiu, a high-grade grain alcohol. Recently, international wines have begun to appear on both traditional and trendy restaurant menus in China. Last year, China became the largest value wine importer outside of the EU, and this year, it became the world’s largest importer of Bordeaux. Does this mean that Lafite (see Winespeak 101) is the best wine with Chinese cuisine? Not in my book, but delivering a strong impression—as opposed to taste and balance—is a good place to start.

While pairing food and wine, I generally employ the notion that what grows together goes together. However, I make an exception when it comes to Chinese food. Not only is Chinese wine not available in the U.S., but we also have several local wines that pair brilliantly with everything from mu shu to shu mai.

Since Afton Mountain Vineyards and Jefferson Vineyards are sampling their wines at the Paramount event tasting on Sunday, September 25, I invited Afton’s Hunter Smith and Jefferson’s Andy Reagan to join us at the banquet table—along with some of their wines. Asian food tickles every taste bud and gewürztraminer, that German mouthful of a varietal that delivers rose petals, lychee and white pepper in alcoholic form, is a perfect match for sweet and spicy foods. Afton Mountain’s Gewürztraminer 2010 delighted us all paired with the spicy garlic beef tendons and wood ear mushrooms in pepper sauce. Ox Eye and White Hall vineyards also make gewürztraminer worthy of chopsticks.

Winespeak 101
Lafite (n.): Château Lafite Rothschild is one of five First Growths (named under the 1855 classification) in Bordeaux, France, and produces cabernet sauvignon-based wines that are among the most expensive in the world.

White wines showcasing fruit, flowers and spice—like Jefferson Vineyards’ Pinot Gris 2010,  Johannisberg Riesling 2009 and Viognier 2010—proved heavenly, even with that tongue-numbing, citrus-like flavor of the Sichuan peppercorn. I especially liked the slight spritz of the pinot gris with the addictive dry-fried eggplant, but I’ve also been enjoying it at home with my less prosaic weekly stirfry. Of course, Virginia is bursting with creamy, tropical viognier that can stand up to a Sichuan fire starter, yet play nice with a Cantonese seafood dish. Barboursville and King Family vineyards also make viognier perfect for a pupu platter of Chinese dishes. The riesling, with its slight sweetness, candied lemon flavor and high acidity, was a tasty foil to the rich umami of the steamed pork soup dumplings. Cold, sweet wine with the warm, salty soup was a memorable combination, to say the very least. Barboursville Vineyards makes an exceptional riesling and Linden Vineyards blends riesling with vidal for a wine that makes Tuesday night take-out feel like a celebration.

Knowing that a red wine’s tannins can clash with heavily spiced and salted dishes, the winemakers didn’t bring a lot of red, but with multiple preparations of beef, duck and lamb on the table, we were pleased to have one red wine. Jefferson’s Cabernet Franc Reserve 2009 offers generous, brambly fruit tempered with lively acidity and smoldering spices, making it an ideal partner for the fatty, smoked Peking duck. I still can’t imagine popping the cork on a $1,000-plus bottle of Bordeaux to have with Chinese spareribs, but I do see how the woodsy fruit of merlot, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon work with proteins awash with flavor.

We’d drained every last bottle by the time dessert arrived, but I still wasn’t too gorged to consider what wine would go well with the fried sesame rice balls filled with sweet red bean paste. Linden Late Harvest Vidal 2006 tastes like baked peaches and hazelnuts, but with a streak of acidity, that would have been a welcome treat to end on. I’ll remember to bring a bottle next visit.