Monday, August 24, 2015

Chinese rice wines: what's what?

Rice wines are as much a part of China’s food culture as tea, and this is truer of the Yangtze River area than just about anywhere else. Jiangsu and Zhejiang in particular enjoy an historic reputation for the exceptional quality of their wines. In fact, this region is a bit like the Loire Valley in France when it comes to discussions of a wine-based food culture, as countless dishes have been designed to complement wine and also incorporate it as a main component in the seasoning.

Inexpensive yet good Shaoxing wines
The rice wines here tend to be amber-colored, and so they are collectively referred to as “yellow wine” (huángjĭu 黃酒). Shaoxing rice wine (Shàoxīng jĭu 紹興酒), which is often specified as an ingredient in this blog and in my upcoming cookbook, ALL UNDER HEAVEN, is named after the town in Zhejiang where it is produced. The other two that must be mentioned are huadiao and cooking wine. Huādiāo 花雕 literally means “carved” and is a Shaoxing varietal.

The other main types of rice wine are mĭjĭu 米酒, which is referred to in this blog as a “mild rice wine,” as it has the most subtle flavor and is closest of the Chinese wines to Japanese sake. Very similar to that is the general category known as cooking wine (liàojĭu 料酒), which usually is of lesser quality than the wines destined for drinking; it often has a bit of salt added to deter its direct consumption, and a good example of this is Taiwanese Mijiu (or "Cooking Michiu," as it says on the label.

My preferred cooking wine
Like their Western counterparts, the best Chinese rice wines can range in sweetness from dry or brut (gān ) to syrupy elixers (nóngtián 濃甜) that pair well with dessert. The colors likewise can be anywhere from clear to a deep brown hue. All are non-distilled and made mainly from rice, of course, and they rely on the same happy bundling of yeast, molds, and bacteria that are called upon for Fermented Rice.

Connoisseurs often debate the proper pairing of wines with foods here with the same vociferousness that can be found in the West. And although Western-style grape wines are increasing in popularity and hearty red ones in particular are sometimes served with the foods of China, one must choose carefully to find a good match. 

Warm your rice wine before imbibing
Wine expert Gerald Asher has suggested varietals that can echo the attributes of Chinese rice wine, such as a vin jaune fino Sherry and other madeirized wines like Manzanilla, Tokaji, or Hungarian Furmint, because these, as Mr. Asher noted, are “not fruity in the way that, say, a Riesling is or a Chardonnay is... and would not overwhelm even the most subtle flavor of a Chinese dish.”

But then again, as with so many things having to do with fine dining, the most important factor is what tastes best to you. And if wine of any stripe does not suit your fancy, beer goes admirably with most of China’s savory foods, while tea is the perfect after-dinner refreshment.

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