I think I might be the only person living in London who hasn’t ordered Chinese takeout.
Or any takeout (“takeaway” for the Brits) for that matter. Don’t ask me why, but I just seem to forget that it is an option. I’m also the annoying person who asks a question out loud before they remember to Google it first. Call me old fashioned… I went to school in the days before you could use articles on the internet as a primary source.
Anyway, last night was a night of discoveries. The first being that there is an entire world of takeout across the UK to be found in Hungryhouse. How on earth did I not know about this before?
The second discovery was that two things I’m immensely fond of – but never thought to put together – actually work really well. And that is Chinese Food (well, Westernized Chinese food as I know it) and wine from the Central Loire Valley.
Based on solar and lunar calendars, Chinese New Year is just days away on February 19th, with 2015 being the year of the sheep. In London, festivities will take place on February 22nd on Trafalgar Square with a parade and a main stage from 10am-6pm. The London festivities are the biggest outside of Asia (so prepare for crowds), but Europe’s first Chinatown was actually founded in Liverpool (pictured below). With this taking place, the lovely folks at Centre Loire Wines challenged me to try something I’d never done before: pair French wines with Chinese food.
I’ll say off the bat that I naturally gravitate to big, spicy reds. I adore Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and (lovely recent discovery) Primitivo.
Because my knowledge of white wines is less experienced, I gravitate towards those I’ve found the most consistency in: dry, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and if I’m really lucky… Sancerre. I usually pull out the whites at lunchtime and on hot summer days – maybe paired with vitamin packed salads, marinated chicken or picnic material. Quite often with food that was already cold. So this was going to be a new experience.
(I had visions in my head of the one year I didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Brussels and my boyfriend at the time showed up at my doorstep with two tuna steaks and a bottle of champagne. I thought he was crazy when he suggested we drink the bubbles with the fish, but the meal was a total eye opener. Champagne isn’t just a drink for receptions… you can pair it with a meal.)
Back to the task at hand: As I was feeling a tiny bit out of my depth, I decided to call in the troops.
Five hungry friends – all of whom happen to enjoy wine – showed up at my door on Sunday evening and we quickly selected a menu of:
· Vegetarian and crispy spring rolls
· Satay chicken on skewers
· Mixed dim sum (har kau, sui mai, shanghai chicken and vegetarian)
· Grilled pork and vegetable dumplings
· Steamed basket of har kau, siu mai, shanghai and vegetable dumplings with roast pork and custard buns
· Special chow mein with pork, chicken, shrimp, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts
· Mou shu chicken with egg & vegetables in a garlic soya sauce, served with pancakes and plum sauce
We chose three wines to taste during our meal and without hesitation, decided to try the Sancerre first while we waited for our delivery. Sancerre is a wine that you always want to instinctively go for, but which can be hard to find by the glass in a restaurant and is often kept for a special occasion due to its slightly pricier (completely worth it) price tag.
We uncorked the bottle, held our glasses out and… gasped.
The Sancerre was red. It was a Bois de l’Epine 2013 Sancerre Rouge.
Such rookies. We had not heard of Sancerre Rouge before.
A wine must be 100% Pinot Noir to be considered Sancerre Rouge and about 20% of the Loire’s wine production is red*. It was really interesting and we wished we’d saved it to drink with the meal itself instead of trying it as an aperitif. When you have such a clear expectation that you’re going to try one thing, it can throw you off a bit to taste something very different. The Sancerre Rouge truly tasted like a light blend of white and red wines – very earthy and chalky. It may have been a little bit on the young side. Next time around I’d save it for a nice pork dish on a warm spring evening. At £15 a bottle at Marks & Spencer, I want to try it again to taste it properly.
(For those who want to find out more about Sancerre Rouge, take a look at this article in the WSJ.)
There are few things nicer as a host than the moment when you watch everyone pass dishes around the table. Even if you didn’t cook the meal yourself. We debated which wine to try next with the food: Half the group went for the 2012 Coteaux du Giennois Sauvignon Blanc from Domaine de Villargeau and the other half for a 2013 Champalouettes Pouilly Fumé.
The Pouilly Fume was so good the group unanimously decided it went well with everything regardless the dish they were eating. Crisp and dry, tasting like gooseberry, it had me aching for springtime and picnics. But it was also nice to drink in winter because we were warmed by the vegetables and spices of the food at the same time.
Pouilly Fume grows on the right bank of the Loire while Sancerre grows on the left (with about twice as many hectares). No matter how you swing it, wine is all about the soil it grows in and you taste that in the flavors: whether it be the clay and limestone ground that gives the mineral taste to the Pouilly Fumé or the higher, less homogeneous chalky terrain of Sancerre. You can find the Champalouettes Pouilly Fumé at Sainsbury’s for £13.
The acidic Coteaux, when paired with the richness of the dumplings especially, cleansed the palette and cut through the sticky, salty sauces. We were happy we were drinking it with the meal as it fell on the sweeter side and with some research, I learned that a great pairing for salty food is a sweeter acidic wine. It balances everything out and leaves your mouth feeling refreshed rather than overwhelmed by any one ingredient in particular.
Coteaux du Giennois is actually a tiny appellation of 91 hectares of Sauvignon vines – grown right next to Pouilly Fumé, it is a steal for £9.99 at Marks & Spencer.
So what did we learn?
Here is where I was right: my favorite dry wines are still reliable.
Here is where I was wrong and where I want to be more adventurous in my wine selection: I shouldn’t have expected all the wines to be white! The sweetness of dry wines is not something to shy away from when tackling rich, salty or even spicy food, but rather something that can help you cut through it.
Wines high in tannins, like my favorite Cabernet Sauvignon would be your enemy with our menu, but crisp mineraly fruit will be your friend.
There was nothing left to do but open our fortune cookies…
Many thanks to my taste testing crew and to the Centre Loire Wines team for sharing their wines with us. We were kindly sent five bottles and only had the opportunity to taste the three listed above. The other two you’ll see pictured above were a Coteaux de Giennois Rosé and the Reuilly Cuveé Nathalie.
*Facts from this article by Matthew Conway.
Second photo by SomeDriftwood, shared through Creative Commons. Other photos by JessOnThames.