In a pig’s ear? Adventures in pairing wine and Chinese food

By Jim Boyce | There is trouble at table five.

A group of experts try a dozen wines with spicy shredded pig’s ear to decide the best pairing. They’ve already done this dance with steamed fish and sweet and sour pork. Now two members—veterans from France and Portugal—claim hey have the match of the day for that crunchy porcine auditory organ. Wine number 3. They give it 95 and 98 out of 100 points.

Unfortunately, group chair Natasha Hughes, a Master of Wine who later (jokingly?) declares that the next person to interrupt her must run three laps around the swimming pool, disagrees. Hughes finds the pairing unsatisfactory and the wine dirty.

Uh oh.

This happened during the International Wine & Cuisine Pairing Competition at a resort in Beijing’s Fangshan district, an event organized by S-China Capital with support from Wine 100 and Beijing International Wine and Spirit Exchange. You might wonder why anyone should care about a bunch of experts tasting a bunch of wines against a pig’s ear, a situation few if any consumers will ever face.

I empathize. Such exercises seem overly ambitious given the vast universe of grape varieties, wine brands and vintages out there. And somewhat irrelevant as the same food and wine can vary dish to dish and bottle to bottle. And it doesn’t help that some in the wine trade suck more than an air-operated double-diaphragm pump at talking to those beyond their circles.

But if you have a passion for anything, whether cricket, cameras, cooking or comic book collecting, you might imagine how a wine fan gets excited about what Bordeaux goes best with braised pork belly.

Pairing also makes intuitive sense as I tell friends who pooh-pooh the practice but will argue to the death over what gin is best for a martini, what ketchup brand is the only legitimate one for a hot dog, or the legitimacy of pineapple on pizza.

Here in Beijing, at popular hot pot restaurant Haidilao, my friends painstakingly blend dipping sauces from a condiment buffet with dozens of options: spicy chili oil, salty sauce, the sweet and sour touches of sugars and vinegars, and more. They are creating the equal of a wine, a magical concoction that matches all that emerges from the bubbling broth. So it makes sense some wines will match that broth and those sauces better than others, no?

Anyway, back to table five.

Hughes calls over Andrew Caillard—Australian, fellow Master of Wine, and event co-chair with Fongyee Walker. He tries the wine and declares it faulty. Perhaps in some European events it might get 16 or 16.5 points out of 20, he says dismissively. But in Australia, where screw tops dominate and corks are a minority, it would be a 13.

That sounds harsh to this novice of wine and pig ear pairing.

As Hughes and Caillard discuss the wine further, I quietly ask the French and Portuguese delegates if they plan to change their scores. No way.

I recall our instructions at the start of the day.

“It’s all about the match, not about the wine or the food, it’s about the match,” Caillard had said.

Given this, I like the continental European case. The wine and food do pair well, and the faultiness is debatable. Does it matter?

“The panel chair makes the final decision,” Caillard also explained to us earlier. “It’s the final decision, whether you like it or not.”

And so it goes.

To be fair, this is an extreme case. There tended to be much more agreement than not with other wines and foods, such as the steamed fish. But it underscores that even experts can disagree—widely. Two gave a pairing 90-plus, a score that means “you’d turn around to someone and say, ‘If you’re eating this dish, you must find this wine’.” Two others turned back and essentially said the wine was gross.

That doesn’t make pairing irrelevant, just more complicated in a world where many want definitive answers. Consider it like going to hot pot. Expert advice is just one buffet item to consider—along with tips from friends, suggestions from writers, your food and drink experience, and more—when figuring out your ideal sauce. The wine world is not black and white but shades of yellow and red that allow you to create a palatte for your palate

Also, I like pineapple on pizza.

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