Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Food & Wine Matching in China. Worth pursuing? Or a waste of time?

Image of Chinese dinner courtesy of

“We like the game...” She had no way of knowing it, but my young Chinese friend had just come up with one of the best and most elegant responses to the question of food-and-wine-matching. Her position at the heart of one of China’s biggest state-owned wine companies had made her an ideal person to ask about the relevance - and more importantly, the likely commercial fruitfulness - of the efforts westerners are making to promote the way their wines go with Chinese food. First, she pointed out, talking about “Chinese” cuisine is as meaningful - and and insulting - as talking about “European” cuisine, lumping, pizza, paella and steak and kidney pie together as one. The use of chilli in Szechuan is far, far more liberal than in Cantonese kitchens, for example. 

Then, of course, there’s the range of different dishes on the table. At a banquet there would rarely be fewer than ten of these and even at home, four or five would not be uncommon. As a rule, there is supposed to be one per person, with some discussion over whether rice or noodles should be seen as being additional to this number. So, which of these deliciously individual plates of food are you going to match with your Volnay, 
Viognier or Vouvray? (When I repeated the suggestion by a western expert that one should aim for the “main” dish, the “piece de resistance”, I received a very withering look: every dish should reflect the cook’s finest efforts).

Then, my friend, continued, there’s a cultural gap between what westerners might think constitutes a perfect combination and marriages that might suit a Chinese palate. “In your countries”, she said, “you have a strange relationship with chilli. It’s like a fire you like to light and then put out. So you ask for hot, spicy dishes and eat them with cold drinks to remove the effect of the chilli. It’s a bit like drinking hot tea with ice cream. We cook with those spices because we like what they do to our food”.

So, I responded, are you saying that everything people are doing - all the books, tastings and dinners that are so painstakingly prepared to prove the food-and-wine case - is a complete waste of tie in China? “No”, she patiently replied. “For several reasons, it may be worthwhile. We like rituals - think of the tea ceremony - and the concept of ‘face’ involves being seen to do things in ‘the right way’. So, there’s an interest in the concept, and in particular we can be fascinated by the way western wines go with western dishes. That’s a game we can understand and it’s a game we like...”

Of course, some Chinese gourmets who’ve been bitten by the wine bug, do develop a fascination with marrying wines of every kind to specific examples of Asian cuisine. I have been lucky enough to have been invited by the Singaporean vinous luminary NK Yong to enjoy brilliant banquets prepared by his wife Melina that are as perfectly orchestrated as any symphony. But these are exceptions to the rule. Realists - and anyone who has talked to many sommeliers in China - would have to respond that eating western food - with or without appropriately chosen wines - is not a daily activity for most wine drinking Chinese. The majority are happy to choose a red to begin the meal and stick with it throughout.

My Chinese friend had not finished, however. “Why, in any case, are you westerners expecting us to do what you don’t actually do yourselves?”. Pointing out that she had spent time in Europe and the US, she asked how often normal people - not wine professionals or enthusiasts, but normal people who buy wine to drink at home and in restaurants - actually pay any real attention to creating perfect food and wine combinations. “Yes”, she said, “you’ll maybe make the effort on special occasions - a few times a year - but from what I’ve seen on a daily basis, most people eat and drink what they like”.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to help one to focus on aspects of one’s own life. Listening to her, I cast my mind back to the many wonderful meals I have had at which Michelin-starred chefs, sommeliers and winemakers had worked together to create the most amazing hedonistic partnerships. Were they all wasting their time (and money)?. Of course not. Those occasions set the wines into fascinating contexts, often bringing out characteristics and qualities I, at least, had never seen before. But they were no more anchored to the real world than a fashion show in which beautiful women with improbably perfect bodies parade successions of garments along a catwalk.

To the designers, models and journalists, those catwalk shows are vitally important, possibly making the difference between a fashion house making a profit or loss. But viewed from the outside, they’re a game. A possibly engaging and, for a tiny number, compulsive game, but a game nonetheless. And we should be grateful that some Chinese at least enjoy playing our games on occasion even if they are never going to become any more part of their daily lives than they are of their neighbors in the west.


  1. Anonymous12:35 p.m.

    Hi Robert,

    Great addendum to your report on the facts of selling into Hong Kong & China. I say live & let match or clash wherever you are. Unusually on this island, I drink wine almost exclusively with food & prefer something that does n’t clash or even goes well, but never push it on anyone. When advising customers I try to find out if they care. Some people do, some sort of do, many don’t. Your young Chinese friend clearly shows that food matching's pretty irrelevant & impractical over there & she’s dead right about over here too. A perfect match is rarely practical. My parents match dry Spanish red with... well, almost everything, and nobody dies. If I may prove your friend’s point by quoting my recent tweet “..Matching food & wine's often a relative term in my kitchen...more like crowbar the latest bottle into my weekly menu where it clashes least..”.

    Tyrone : @winesonlyadrink

  2. Thanks Tyrone. More thoughts on China follow!

  3. Anonymous3:07 a.m.

    Great to actually hear some different ideas on this subject.

    The lighting a fire and then putting it out comment is interesting as Chinese always look for balance, so matching a hot and spicy dish with a cold sweet drink is exactly what Chinese would do.

    As for nobody really matching food and wine, I don't think the issue is always about finding the perfect 1er cru Bourgogne Rouge to match with a Beijing duck meal. There are different levels for different people. Take this duck example. What to drink? Red->light->Pinot Noir->Burgundy->Cote du Nuits->etc. This can represent levels of wine matching from those with little concern who choose a red over a white to people who are very concerned about the issue and choose a particular Gevrey Chambertin as it has a, say, smokier quality that matches the way a particular chef has prepared the dish.

    Be careful as these left-field comments can throw you if you don't think them through properly.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you Anon. Of course, I agree with you on the potential brilliance of some food and wine matching, and its fascination to a minority of the mass of people who drink wine with their meals every day.

      I, along with others, have done some research into UK consumers, asking them how and when they plan to drink the wine they have just bought. Very few respond with any reference to a meal. They generally buy wines they like and drink them with foods they like, quite possibly enjoying that duck with a Pinot Grigio

      I acknowledge that levels of interest in the subject vary between and within markets. When The Bordeaux marketers researched internet chatter, they found that French tweeters and facebookers often talked about wine and food in the same breath. Brits and Yanks did so far more rarely.

      My point is that the issue can be one of the wedges that separates the mass from the winerati. If you don't believe me, just take a look at the number of standups who exploit it in their routines

      In China today, for the short term at least, saying that red wine is good for women's skin will yield far greater dividends than trying to sell food & wine marriages.

  4. Anonymous3:15 a.m.

    Having lived in Southern China for a very long time, I have to agree 'red wine being good for the skin' and other such myths help sell products. Scarily so.

    My point was that the degree of wine and food matching may not be so serious, but we can't totally discount it either.

    Educated Mainlanders like the lady you met often come out with grand statements that, at face value, seem to have some truth to them, but upon further investigation are easily dismissed.

    I don't doubt your point that many people don't care much for the finer points of food-wine pairing.

    1. Thanks, Anon. I think this will be an interesting subject on which you and I - and others can focus our attention for a very long time yet. Where we both agree, I suspect is that unlocking China tends to involve more than the insertion of a western key

  5. I think the game of pairing food and wine is definitely worth pursuing in China because they are a culture that enjoys rituals and continues to learn in leaps and bounds about the world around them. It is an international game and everyone should get a chance to play - especially since it is so delicious.

    1. I agree that everyone should get the chance to play - this and all sorts of other games. But we should accept that many (most) wine drinkers across the globe will choose not to play it, or to do so very occasionally.