My wine and Chinese food-matching epiphany came during yum cha one bleary Sunday morning in Golden Century, the big, bustling institution of a restaurant in Sydney's Chinatown. I think I might have been mildly hungover – but I've always maintained this is a prerequisite for fully enjoying the succession of crunchy, gelatinous, steamed and fried treats that make up a proper yum cha experience.
Even though it's a Cantonese tradition to drink tea with yum cha, Golden Century also boasts an enormous wine list, groaning with expensive Bordeaux and old Australian reds. Now, as much as I love claret and Coonawarra cabernet, I've never found either to be the best match for spring rolls or turnip cakes. And, being the poncy booze hack I am, I'd brought along a couple of bottles from Arbois in the French region of Jura: whites made from the savagnin grape variety that had been aged in barrel under a layer of flor yeast.
What a revelation! All the nutty, tangy, yeasty, deeply savoury flavours in these wines – the characters that make them taste so different from so many other wines in France when you drink them on their own – made perfect sense with the umami-rich flavours of soy and fermented beans and fried garlic in the food on my plate. I was in flavour heaven, hangover evaporated, ready to face the world.
More recently, during a Sichuan feast, I had my first taste of top-quality baijiu, the strong white spirit made from sorghum that is traditionally drunk as part of the ritual toasting in Chinese banquets. Because the raw ingredients and production techniques for baijiu are almost entirely different from that of most Western spirits, the pungent, cheesy, wild flavours in the finished product – not to mention the 50-plus per cent alcohol – were rather challenging to this inexperienced baijiu taster.
But when I tried the spirit with the first dish – scallop wontons with chilli oil and black vinegar – the sweet, salty, hot flavours in the food melded beautifully with the savoury pungency of the baijiu, each enhancing the other perfectly. Another revelation, the lesson being, as with my Jura-and-yum-cha experience, to consider drinks with funky, deeply savoury, pungent and tangy characteristics when you're thinking about what to match with various Chinese dishes. This is why I've also found orange wines – skin-contact whites – and yeasty pet-nat sparkling wines and sour fruit beers and oxidative fortified wines like amontillado sherry all work beautifully.
Not everyone digs these wilder drinks as much as I do, though. I realise that. So here are a couple of other suggestions for the next time you head out for yum cha or fire up the wok burner at home.
Riesling is your friend
I know I bang on a lot about aged riesling in this column, but I'm afraid I'm going to bang on again about it here, because a good riesling from the Clare Valley or Eden Valley that's been maturing quietly for five or ten years in the cellar is very much your friend in a Chinese restaurant, especially if there's, say, a whole steamed fish on the table, its skin crisp from a drizzle of sizzling sesame oil. Again, it's the deep savoury richness that comes from bottle age that's the key: the toasty scents and long, lingering flavours in the wine love the ginger and nuttiness and richness of the fish.
Pair Peking duck with rich reds...
For a long time, I've reached for pinot noir whenever someone's ordered duck in a Chinese restaurant: whether it's the sweet succulence of Peking duck pancakes or the drier texture and perfumed depth of flavour of Sichuan tea-smoked duck, pinot's fragrance, lighter body and silky tannins work so well. I was introduced to this combo many years ago and have always enjoyed it, but recently I've changed my go-to duck match to a slightly fuller-bodied, bolder red such as a young gamay or cabernet franc: still bright and juicy but with a little more sweet fruit density to cope with the intensity of the roasting and smoking and sauces.
And dumplings with aromatic whites
And I'm a big fan of aromatic white blends, especially with lighter steamed dumplings. This style has form in Australia, of course: once upon a time, back in the '70s and '80s, the ubiquitous traminer-riesling blend – soft, sweet, cheap – was found on every table of every local BYO Chinese restaurant across the country.
Now, combining aromatic and textural white varieties has come back into fashion in Australia, both in traditional, French-inspired blends such as riesling and gewürztraminer and pinot gris, and also less mainstream, more adventurous mash-ups such as "field blends" of viognier, vermentino and sauvignon blanc, grown and fermented together.
Take one of these new-wave whites along with you to your next Sunday morning yum cha. I think you'll enjoy it. With or without a hangover.