Perfect Match: wine pairing for Chinese food

Wine connoisseur Nikki Palun gives her top tips for matching wine with Chinese cuisine.



In Western culture, the development of local cuisines and local wines evolved together over the centuries resulting in regional food and wine styles that naturally complement each other. For example, Entrecote a la Bordelaise or rib beef in red wine sauce is a local delicacy in Bordeaux and therefore a perfect wine match would be a red Bordeaux wine with its medium weight, dense fruit and subtle herb characters. There would be no need to think too hard about which wine to match with this dish as the choice would be instinctive. 


In contrast, Chinese cuisine didn’t evolve with wine and unlike Western cuisine where each individual dish is served with a paired wine, banquet styled eating is the norm. On one table there will be multiple dishes and multiple flavors coexisting together making food and wine matching more challenging. However some basic guidelines can help ensure that all the textures and flavours in both the food and wines react in harmony in your mouth rather than in competition.

One common food and wine matching generalization is that white meat goes with white wine and red meat goes with red wine. However this is rather simplistic and can cause you to exclude some exquisite wine matches – such as steak tartare (raw beef with egg and capers) with a glass of dry white wine. Nikki Palun Sweet and sour pork and red wine web

*Pictured right: Acid in wine can cut through oil or fattiness in food creating the perfect palate cleanser for enjoying the next mouthful.

Below are some principles that you can follow:

1. Match the wine with the signature dish

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The first step is as each round of dishes come out, identify the signature dish and then base all your wine choices around that one dish rather than all the other dishes on the table.

2. Match the weight of the dish with the weight of the wine 

The next step is to assess the ‘weight’ or ‘body’ of the dish. The easiest way to understand weight is to consider the various types of milk. Skim milk would be light in weight, regular milk would be medium in weight and cream would be full bodied. In wine, differences in weight are due to the level of alcohol and extract due to differences in climate and wine making style. Ripe fruit from a warm climate has more sugar in the grapes, meaning a higher alcohol wine and gives the wine more weight.

Extract is the amount of flavor, colour and tannins that the wine maker has extracted out of the grapes during the wine making process. So a Shiraz that comes from a warm climate, that is allowed to ripen on the vines before harvest and is then ‘worked’ in the winery would tend to have more weight than a Shiraz from a cool climate, that is picked early and then made with minimum interference in the winery.

Weight in wine also comes from the intensity of flavours, being delicate, medium or strong. Whilst many white wines are delicate in flavor, such as a cooler climate Riesling, they can also have strong flavours as well such as an oaky Chardonnay. An example of a delicate flavoured red wine would be a Yarra Valley Pinot whereas a strong flavoured red would be a Barossa Shiraz.


Therefore if the signature dish were delicate and light, then you would choose a light weight wine. In contrast, if the signature dish was a rich and full of flavours, then you would choose a full bodied wine to match it with. 

3. Complement the tastes and aromas

After identifying the signature dish and then working out it’s weight, the next step is to identify the main tastes and aromas in the dish and then choose a wine that has similar characters. By tastes we are describing the five tastes in your mouth – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umani (or savoury like a soy sauce). So if the dish has high acidity, then you would choose a wine with high acidity. If the dish were sweet, then you would choose a sweet wine. You can also match the aromas in the food with the aromas in the wine. So if the dish had pepper as the prominent flavours, then you would choose a peppery cool climate, peppery Shiraz to match with it. Or if you had a dish with Chinese five spice then you could match it to the cedar wood spice of a Pinot Noir.

4. Contrast the tastes and aromas

Rather than complement the tastes and aromas, you can also choose to contrast them with your wine choice. In cooking an example would be a dish that has both sweet and sour characters, such as gulurou (咕噜肉) or Cantonese Sweet and Sour Pork. Using this theory you would match a spicy dish with a sweet wine as the sweetness from the wine decreases the heat from the chili.

5. Special interactions

There are also some unique interactions that are important to bear in mind. The first is that wine tastes different when enjoyed alone in comparison to when enjoyed with food due to the chemical interactions between the food and wine in your mouth. One example of this is that the tannins in wine bind with the proteins in meat making the tannins smoother and thus the wine easier to drink. Another special interaction is that the acid in wine can cut through oil or fattiness in food creating the perfect palate cleanser for you to enjoy the next mouthful of food.

Finally always avoid a tannic wine when enjoying spicy food as the tannins will make the spice appear stronger. If you can remember these few simple principles you will be able to confidently choose the wines to accompany your next Chinese banquet. If you don’t know the wine, you can also ask the waiter to let you try it first to assess its taste and aroma characters.

However, there really are no strict rules when matching food and wine and usually common sense is the best guide. Below are some wine and food pairings ideas for your next Chinese banquet that you might like to try.

Dish Wine Comments 

Dim Sum 点心 Nikki Palun Enjoying Dim Sum and sparkling wine web
Premium sparkling wine Dim Sum is enjoyed over lunch and therefore the lightness of a sparkling wine is well suited to this occasion. The complexity in the sparkling wine will stand up to the range of flavours in dim sum. Also the acidity in the sparkling wine will refresh the palate between each round. 

*Pictured right: Sparkling wine is the perfect accompaniment for delicate flavours of Chinese dim sum. 

Salted Lobster 盐尤虾
Medium bodied dry Chardonnay or Australian / New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc
Lobster is a medium weight white meat and this will match perfectly with the medium weight of a dry Chardonnay. Another option is a Sauvignon Blanc as the sweetness in the wine will match well with the sweetness of the meat. 

Braised Abalone 焖鲍鱼
Aged Chardonnay
The delicate sweetness and firmness of the Abalone matches the creaminess and layered complexity of the aged Chardonnay

Fish Head with Chili 茶油剁椒鱼头
Off dry Riesling or Pinot Gris
The sweetness in the wine will decrease the spice of the chili. Don’t choose a chardonnay as the tannins will increase the heat of the chili.

Lions Head 狮子头
Light to medium bodied white and red wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gamay or Dolcetto
The broth is savoury and matches with the savouriness of a barrel matured Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc from France. The medium weight of the dish will complement lighter bodied reds without overpowering the flavours of the soup.

Gong Bao Ji Ding 宫保鸡丁
Pinot Gris
Pinot Gris is a medium bodied wine and will match the weight of the chicken. The sweetness in the wine will decrease the spice of the chili. Salted Duck 盐水鸭 Pinot Noir This cold dish is full of flavor and warrants a light bodied red wine such as a Pinot Noir or a Gamay

Dongpo Rou 东坡肉 Off dry Riesling Match the sweetness in the sauce to the sweetness in the wine. Also acid in the wine cuts through the fat and cleanses the palate. 

Beijing Roast Duck 北京烤鸭
Moscato, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Botrytis Semillon
The bean sauce has some sweetness and so choose an off dry white or even a dessert wine to complement.

Twice cooked Pork 回锅肉
Pinot Noir, Gamay, Merlot and other soft reds
This medium weight dish works well with soft and round red wines that doesn’t have too much tannin. 

Jiaozi 饺子
Cool climate Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon
Jiaozi are dipped in soy sauce, vinegar and chili. Complement the soy with the savouriness of Syrah but make sure there is not too much tannin in the wine otherwise it will make the chili seem hotter. 

Char Siew 叉烧
Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Cabernet , Sauvignon, Sangiovese
The barbequed flavours in the sauce match well with the tastiness of the oak found in a wide range of red wines. The acids in the wine will also cleanse the palate from the oiliness of the dish. 

Sea Cucumber with Roast Spring Onions 葱烧海参
Pinot Noir, Aged Cabernet, Nebbiolo or Sangiovese
Although this is a seafood, the flavours are intensely delicate. These match perfectly with complex yet light to medium bodied dry reds Braised

Pork Belly with Preserved Vegetable 梅菜扣肉
Shiraz or Merlot
The ripe juicy fruit and soft round tannins of the Shiraz will match the weight and flavours of the braised pork. 

Pork Rib 排骨
Full bodied Shiraz, Merlot or Cabernet
The richness of the sauce matches with the richness in a fruit forward, full bodied red wine

Lamb Kebabs 烤羊肉串
Shiraz, Merlot or Pinot Noir
The peppery spice will match with the pepper of a cool climate Shiraz and the cumin spice will complement with the cedar wood characters from the Pinot Noir.


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