Asian grapevine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 September, 2011, 12:00am


The beauty of West Lake has inspired poets and artists in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, for more than 2,000 years, including Bai Juyi and Su Dongpo. Hangzhou is a fairly popular domestic tourist destination, as the country's former capital with beautiful greenery and the lake. But with international visitors, it is often overlooked. The trip I took there last week was my first.

Hangzhou is located just 180 kilometres southwest of Shanghai, and the high-speed train takes only an hour. It is fast becoming a weekend excursion or second home destination for wealthy Shanghainese. But Hangzhou has plenty of its own internally generated wealth. Some of the largest and most successful companies have headquarters there, including online retailer Alibaba. As a first-time visitor to this ancient city, I was struck by the lushness of the environment. The streets are lined with manicured foliage, and tall trees overshadow buildings and houses throughout the city. One of the oldest Buddhist temples in China is the Lingyin Temple with its many temple buildings filled with giant wooden Buddha statues - well worth a visit.

For all my meals during my two-day stay, I chose to eat only the region's speciality dishes, including Hangzhou-style wonton soup (smaller dumplings and more flavourful stock than the Cantonese version) and congee in the mornings. Lunchtimes consisted of various local seafood dishes accompanied by small appetisers and side dishes that were milder in flavour compared with Shanghainese dishes.

Similarities in the two cuisines include condiments, cold appetisers and pickled vegetable dishes. The offerings in Hangzhou were less sweet and less vinegary compared with Shanghainese versions. With these appetiser dishes, I enjoyed refreshing sauvignon blanc and semillon blend whites such as those from Australia's Margaret River or Bordeaux, France.

The preparation of fish and seafood dishes were a cross between Shanghai and Cantonese cuisine. One particularly memorable dish was the grouper cooked in Shaoxing rice wine. This local traditional wine fuelled the poetic and creative energies of many artists who lived and worked in Hangzhou over the centuries. Shaoxing is considered among the highest quality huangjiu, or yellow wines, with an alcohol range from 14 per cent to 18 per cent. It's made from fermented glutinous rice, and the colour ranges from a light red hue to a more brownish one. Quality and styles vary widely, and the most expensive Shaoxing wines are those that are vintage - dated and matured for a long time. Many dishes are made using this wine and referred to as 'drunken', be they made with chicken or prawns or another main ingredient.

Since Shaoxing wine is used widely in Hangzhou dishes, this would be one of the best wine choices. However, a Fino sherry or a dry oloroso works equally well; full-bodied whites such as cool-climate wooded chardonnays and semillons can work well, too.

Shaoxing is also used sparingly in cooking many dishes such as the popular shrimps with Longjing tea. Besides rice wine, tea is taken very seriously in this province, and the local Longjing tea is used in cooking as well as consumed as a beverage. This popular dish includes small, sweet shrimps from local rivers cooked with green tea leaves that are first steeped in hot water. The stir-frying of the shrimps together with the leaves creates a fantastic tea leaf aroma, with the small shrimps adding sweetness and a soft, succulent texture. Enjoy this with a mature red burgundy or a full-bodied white wine from France's southern Rhone region. Be sure to choose a wine with sufficient acidity as well as body to stand up to the tea leaf flavours in the finish.

Besides seafood, slowly braised meat dishes are also popular in Hangzhou. Dongpo pork is named after the famous poet from the Song dynasty. This pork belly dish, which is half fat and half lean meat, is cooked for many hours so that the meat acquires a velvety texture. These slowly cooked fatty meats call out for a full-bodied red wine. With the gentle, soft texture of this dish and the intense flavours, a great match is a 'Super Tuscan' style Italian red wine. I had it with Frescobaldi's 2007 Mormoreto, and it was a match made in heaven.

During a banquet when the dishes are served in courses, we can introduce one wine with one dish. However, our family style dining habits, which are the norm in Hangzhou as well as the rest of China, means reality often restricts us to one wine choice, perhaps two if it is a big group. With a wide range of seafood dishes from fish soup to braised and stir-fried seafood, as well as bitter mountain vegetables, marinated vegetables and fatty meats, there is no one wine that will pair with all the dishes.

My two top picks would be a white wine with refreshing character and herbaceous flavours that is not overtly grassy. Thus, a semillon and sauvignon blanc blend are good choices for white. My second choice would be an Italian Tuscan, either a traditional one from sangiovese grapes made in a modern style with rounded, ripe tannins or a Super Tuscan Bordeaux blend to stand up to the array of flavours as well as adding a firm tannic backbone and fresh acidity.