The lazy susan is spinning like a vinyl record. Red paper decorations cover the walls surrounding a dining table overflowing with various seafood, meats, and vegetables ready for sharing.
Like Christmas and Thanksgiving, Lunar New Year is about families coming together and feasting under one roof. It is about togetherness. Despite the similarities, if you have ever sat at a traditional dining table in East Asia, you will notice that (grape) wine is likely not a top beverage of choice.
“My family and I love to pound Chinese martinis (read: hot water),” shares Debbie Shing, Chinese-Canadian wine educator and founder of Quvé Group. Hong Kong-based Joey Au, the founder of Wine Geek HK and Vinitaly Italian Wine Ambassador, speaks of a similar experience, “the older and younger generations of my family are not big drinkers. Occasionally, two of us may share a can of beer.” Yet, in the eyes of a new wave of passionate wine experts, they see an opportunity to challenge the status quo and surprise themselves with great pairing results.
Conventional food and wine theories have long regarded Asian food as one big spicy category and recommended pairings like off-dry Riesling or Gewurztraminer to balance its intense flavors. Over time, this yesteryear reflex has evolved.
In time for Lunar New Year, eight wine professionals with roots in East Asian cultures deconstruct flavors and inspire us with their favorite dishes and pairings.
1. Homemade Dumplings
Pairing: Traditional-Method Sparkling Blanc de Noir
In Asia, there are many faces of dumplings: the Chinese jiaozi, the Japanese gyoza, and the Korean mandu, to name a few. It is a customary new year’s dish because these delicious bundles of umami-filled joy look like the shape of a yuanbao, an ancient ingot that was used as money and represents good fortune.
To Dave and Lois Cho, owners of Willamette Valley’s CHO Wines, their favorite new year’s dish has influence from their South Korean heritage. “Dave was born and raised in South Korea until his early teen years and has many memories making dumplings on Lunar New Year with his family,” says Lois.
The couple likes to pair their homemade pork and cabbage-based dumplings with a traditional-method sparkling with overt autolytic character. “Although it was more typical to have Korean-style sake or soju on the table back then, today our sparkling wine is a mainstay on the Cho table,” Lois says, referring to their 100% Pinot Noir Blanc de Noir that spends six months on lees. “The savory umami of pork, chive and cabbage dumplings with the fermented flavorings of soy sauce match up well with the toasted honey notes. The high acidity balances the fattiness of the minced pork.”
2. Tteokguk (Korean Rice Cake Soup)
Pairing: Sparkling Sake, Pet Nat or Saignée Rosé Champagne
Tteokguk, a soup made of rice cakes in clear broth, is commonly eaten on Korean New Year’s Day. Having a bowl of this delicious and filling dish bookends the process of gaining one year of age in the new year.
Raised in Hong Kong by a Korean-American mother and a half-Chinese, half-German-American father, Master of Wine Sarah Heller, the wine editor of Asia Tatler, tends to have a Korean-centric meal with some Cantonese additions for Lunar New Year. Tteokguk is her staple. “We usually have tteokguk on Lunar New Year, which — to be honest — is a pretty tough one when it comes to finding a classical western-style pairing: it’s a soup, it’s hot, and the texture comes mainly from the chewy rice cakes rather than the protein,” Heller continues. “So, instead of trying to match specific elements of a wine to this kind of dish, I’ll look for something fun, refreshing and enlivening for contrast — sparkling sake, pet nat or a saignée Champagne all help brighten up the palate after a bowl of this heavy, delicious stuff.”
3. Turnip Cake and Taro Cake
Pairing: Skin-Contact Wines (with a tea-like quality)
‘Cake’ in Chinese sounds phonetically like the word for ‘high’ and signifies ‘rising to prosperity’. High up on the popularity list is Turnip Cake, a dim sum dish made from Chinese daikon, and Taro Cake, its denser cousin. Both are savory and rich in umami. When it comes to wine pairing ideas, two Hong Kong-based wine experts seek inspiration from the tea culture. “Tea is an important part of Chinese food culture,” says Joey Au. Indeed, going for dim sum in North America is also known as going to yum-cha in Cantonese, and yum-cha literally means ‘drink tea’.
His favorite wine pairing is a skin-contact Vermentino from Sardegna’s Mario Bagella that shares the same aromatic and flavor qualities as jasmine tea. “A tea-like skin-contact wine completes a yum-cha-like experience,” he continues. “This wine has just the right amount of tannin to cut the fattiness and enhance the flavor of the cakes that are often served pan-fried.”
Anty Fung, the co-founder of Hong Kong’s Mato Coffee Wine, agrees. “A full-bodied, dry amber wine like a Rkatsiteli or Kisi from Georgia. Alternatively, a Ribolla Gialla from northeastern Italy also works well for me. The subtle skin-derived tannins give it that tea-like impression. Amber winemaking elevates and brings out dried fruit-floral characters, which juxtaposes the savory character of the cakes.”
4. Seafood Bird’s Nest
Not to be confused with the Bird’s Nest Soup, the Chinese Seafood Bird Nest is an exquisite Cantonese dish made from a fragrant medley of prawns, scallops, fish, squid, and fresh vegetables. It’s served in a crunchy edible basket made of shredded taro.
“It is my absolute favorite Lunar New Year dish”, says Vancouver-born Mike Wong, the wine director at Chambar Restaurant. Born to a Chinese- and Vietnamese-Canadian household, he grew up enjoying many classic Hong Kong and South Vietnam dishes. “The Chinese Seafood Bird Nest has a lot of textures and flavors going on in one dish. I would pair a wine with the backbone and structure to match its intensity. My go-to for anything seafood is the tried-and-true Chablis. Famously unoaked, its electric acidity, piercing minerality, bright orchard fruits, and creamy finish is the perfect pairing to cleanse the palate between bites.”
5. Whole Steamed Fish
Pairing: Rich White Wines
To New York-based Filipino-American Miguel de Leon, the wine director at Pinch Chinese, his love for whole steamed fish transcends flavors.
“I cannot have fonder memories than that of whole steamed fish, suffusing the dining room air with the warming scent of ginger and scallions, the elders in the family fighting over who gets the fish cheeks and the head, eaten simply and satisfyingly with a bowl of white rice,” he shares, in addition to the noodles, stews, and more pungent spices that he grew up with. “The Chinese side of my family is Hokkien, so Fujianese food was well-reflected.”
Fish is pronounced as ‘yu’ in Chinese, which sounds phonetically like ‘surplus’. Eating fish is a way of wishing the family a year of abundance.
To de Leon, he’d reach for richer styles of white wine to go with the fish, “usually with prolonged lees contact or light skin maceration, to bolster the umami flavor of what we’d usually use as a sauce. I love Aligoté, and examples like that of Sylvain Pataille or Domaine de Cassiopée excite me when paired with that fish dish with a little bit of sweet soy sauce and calamansi as a dip.”
6. Roast Pork and Poultry
Pairing: Well-Aged Bordeaux
In ancient days, meat was extremely precious, especially to commoners, and would only be served at New Year’s Eve dinner. Pork, chicken, and duck are all popular options. The former represents good wealth and strength; feasting pork-based dishes during the Lunar New Year signifies a prosperous life. The latter poultries are often served in their entirety, including the head, to represent unity. With these protein-heavy dishes served on the table, it is time for an iconic red wine to enter the chat.
“I like to fully lean into wines my people like and uncork a nicely cellared red Bordeaux from my collection to share with the fam,” says Debbie Shing. “To that end, well-aged Bordeaux from reputable estates, with their trademark softened tannins and hints of umami, are, in fact, so delicious with classic Chinese celebration dishes like roast pork or goose. For the vegetarians, mature Bordeaux would go well with braised shiitake mushrooms over bok choy, too.”
7. Black Moss-Based Dishes
Pairing: Something With an Air of ‘Funk’
A signature New Year ingredient is black moss (or Fat Choy in Cantonese), which symbolizes great wealth. Umami-licious with a funky flavor and texture, black moss is a tricky ingredient to pair with wine.
Shing’s recommendation is a wine with a funky reputation that precedes it. “I’m going to go on a limb here and say Pinotage. You need some lifted juicy fruit as a contrast but a bit of familiar funk to bridge the two. Pinotage in a low intervention and low extraction style would do the trick. I wouldn’t suggest a heavily tannic one.”
In the same vein of funk, Anty Fung suggests “a natural wine with skin contact can be great. The yogurty, almost blue cheese-like quality in certain natural skin contact wines can work really well with umami. Think lambic beer and how food friendly they are!”
8. Nian Gao
Pairing: Something Sweet, Fortified, and Oxidative
A common dish during Lunar New Year, nian gao is a sweet rice cake of glutinous rice flour and brown sugar. The flour-sugar mix creates a sticky and gooey cake with a caramel-like sweetness. “The version of nian gao at my home is pan-fried with a thin coat of egg and a sprinkle of salt to achieve a sweet-savory balance,” Fung says. “An aged amber Vin Doux Naturel will work nicely. I prefer Rivesaltes (AOC) over Maury (AOC) for its flavor complexity, derived from an extended period of oxidative ageing.”
New York-based Icy Liu, the founder of Ungrafted Podcast and Asian Wine Professionals, is also fond of nian gao. “I can eat so many of these!” she laughs. “They would go well with Madeira, especially the cakes with red beans inside.”
One Wine That Rules Them All
Big celebrations call for big smorgasbords of food. Is it possible to find a wine that goes with a wide variety of flavors and textures? Icy Liu thinks so. “When I am with my family, we would eat a wide variety of dishes served all at once. I want something fresh and versatile. My favorite wine for the Lunar New Year is probably Gamay, and my favourite examples are from Domaine Chapel and Laisse Tomber by Basti Wolber. I also made some of my own this year!”
The secret to unlocking the best pairing is to keep an open heart, explore the different flavor nuances, embrace the condiments, and enjoy the ride. Miguel de Leon sums it up eloquently, “if Lunar New Year is any reminder of what community and family mean to us, it’s that whoever we invite to our table becomes family. A little bit of complicated flavor never hurt anyone. I promise you wine can do the same kind of work.”