Tag Archives: Chinese food and wine

A Chinese booze that nobody knows

William Isler pours samples of baijiu

Have you ever tasted baijiu (prounced bye-jyo)? Nevermind. Have you ever heard of it? Probably not. Neither had I, until recently.

It’s a Chinese spirit –the world’s best-selling alcohol by volume, outselling whiskey and vodka combined – that some non-Chinese may find challenging. A white spirit with a savory funkiness, it stands apart from other spirits, and to say that it’s an acquired taste is an understatement. Some might liken it to firewater. Indeed, some brands exceed 100 proof, but not all. Others refer to it as the stinky tofu of the liquor world. This is closer to the truth.

Nevertheless, I celebrated the Chinese New Year at my favorite restaurant, The Orient, in Bethpage, NY, with this traditional Chinese tipple, after sampling several baijiu recently at Post Wines in Syosset, NY, guided by Bill Isler, director for North America of Ming River, a new brand that arrived stateside just months ago. 

Baijiu, which translates to “white alcohol” in Mandarin Chinese, Isler told me, is usually made from sorghum, a common animal feed, but can also be made from other grains. Its ingredients and style vary by distillery and region, but generally are divided into four flavor classifications: strong aroma (full bodied, spicy, fruity), light aroma (light, floral, slightly sweet), sauce aroma (umami, mushroom, earth) and rice aroma (light, clean, honeyed). 

Isler and his partners hope to create new spirits category in the U.S. To be sure, other baijiu are sold in the U.S., mostly in Chinatowns. One, Vinn, is made in Oregon using brown rice from California.

Isler’s product, Ming River, is a strong aroma baijiu, though the label identifies it as Sichuan style. It’s made by a distillery that’s been producing baijiu since 1573. Made from red sorghum and fermented the traditional way – in clay pots with locally harvested yeasts that are buried for two weeks in pit – the result is a 90-proof spirit. 

My tasting with Isler began with Oregon’s VInn Baijiu, whose nose reminded me of sake. It’s of the rice-aroma classification, so no surprise. Its floral and at 40% ABV it goes down easily with a bit of a nutty finish

My second taste was a baijiu classified as a light aroma, Kinmen Kaoliang, from Taiwan.  At 116 proof it’s got a kick that made me wince upon my first sip. It’s a bit like a grappa and somewhat reminiscent of Rhum Agricole from Martinique. It has a grassy, herbal character.

Next up was Isler’s brand, Ming River, classified as a strong aroma baijiu.  It offers up bright, fresh tropical fruit notes along with some licorice-like star anise and a sweet funkiness. My guess, it’s been designed to appeal to western palates.

The final baijiu in the flight was Kweichow Moutai Prince, from China’s largest distillery, categorized as a sauce-aroma baijiu. It’s 106 proof and has big-time funky notes of stinky cheese and mushrooms. It finishes surprisingly sweet.

Isler’s Ming River brand is an outgrowth of a successful bar, called Capital Spirits, that he and ex-pat partners started in Beijing that was dedicated to single shots of baiojiu,. Isler, for one, who majored in Asian studies at Columbia University before spending decades in China, calls himself a serial entrepreneur.

Ming River Baijiu, made at the state-owned Luzhou Laojiao, China’s oldest continually operated baijiu distillery, starts with a mash of locally harvested red sorghum grain and local well water. It is fermented in 30-year-old earthen vessels with naturally harvested yeast cultures native to the Sichuan river town of Luzhou. After two months, the mash is unearthed and distilled in small batches using a traditional Chinese pot still. The spirits then are aged for up to two yearsbefore blending into Ming River’s distinctive flavor. 

Baijiu is traditionally enjoyed neat at room temperature, but Isler is working with bar tenders in trendy eateries to develop cocktails based on the spirit. He likens Ming River to Rhum Agricole, the white rums made from sugar cane in the Caribbean that are often components of cocktails.

A 750ml bottle of Ming River retails for $34-$35 with distribution currently limited to New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In New York, you can find it at Bottle Rocket in Manhattan, in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Wine Exchange andat Post Wines. Park Street Imports LLC, of Miami, FL, is the importer.

I purchased a bottle of Ming River and brought it to dinner. Most of my companions were not enthusiastic. I enjoyed it, however, sipping numerous cups as we dined on some 11 courses of Cantonese fare. Gan-bei!

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Forget beer and tea: She picks the right wines for high-end Chinese food

Christine Parkinson Portrait

Christine Parkinson

Christine Parkinson, the worldwide wine buyer for London-based Hakkasan Group’s Michelin-rated restaurants, reveals some of her secrets.

By Alan J. Wax 

What wine with Chinese food?

An oft-debated topic with Riesling or Gewurztraminer the usual answers— or beer, or tea.

But don’t tell that to Christine Parkinson, the London-based global group wine buyer at Hakkasan Group restaurants, whose chain of stylish, high-end Chinese food outposts spans the globe. Its 12 locations in London, Beverly Hills, Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Beverly Hills, New York, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha, Mumbai and Shanghai, have become destinations for wine as well as Cantonese cuisine.

Recently, I met with Parkinson, who’s been called “one of the most creative wine buyers in the UK” by English wine writer Jancis Robinson, at the almost two-year-old New York City Hakkasan, to gain insight on how she crafted the Hakkasan wine program and how the food that is served influences the wines on the list.

The interior of New York's Hakkasan restaurant

Latticework decor in New York’s Hakkasan restaurant

The New York Theater District location at 311 W. 43rd St. is a stunner. The 11,000-square foot, 200-seat foot eatery is sleek, decorated with marble, ornate wood latticework, glass and mirrors and deep blue colors. The restaurant was bustling with an après-work crowd at the time of our meeting.

Parkinson, who was tasked in 2001 by former Hakkasan CEO Niall Howard to create the first Hakkasan wine list in London, was recruited just 10 weeks before it opened. She has since become regarded as a pioneer in pairing wines with Cantonese cuisine

In those days, she recalled, “it was tea or lager beer” with Chinese food in Britain.

Putting together that first wine list required much research, guidance from colleagues and, of course, lots of tasting, she said, noting she decided at the start “to look for lovely wines.” The wines, of course, had to match the food—all of it. Parkinson and a group of sommeliers and Hakkasan’s chef settled in temporarily at another restaurant and tasted and matched. “The experience taught me that some wines taste dreadful with Cantonese cuisine,” she said, noting that to make the cut, a wine must work with every dish on the menu. “If it goes with the food, I’ll put it on the list.”

Chinese cuisine with its multitude of flavors — mild, savory, sweet and spicy, “makes life very hard for wine,” said Parkinson who said she acquired her wine knowledge as a food and beverage manager, a job that was preceded by work as a chemical analyst and head chef. “From my experience so many wines don’t work with the food. If a customer doesn’t like the match up, she added, they’ll return to their tea and beer.”

Hakkasan's Hakka Noodles with mushrooms and chives

Hakkasan’s Hakka Noodles with mushrooms and chives

Roasted Silver Cod with Champagne and Chinese Honey

Roasted Silver Cod with Champagne and Chinese Honey

As we chatted, we nibbled on delicately flavored hakka steamed noodles tossed with mushrooms and chives and an addictive, sweetish Roasted Silver Cod with Champagne and Chinese Honey. We sipped Ca’ dei Frati Lugana I Frati, an Italian 100 percent Lugana (Trebbiano)-based wine from Lombardy that’s been on Hakkasan wine lists since 2001. A delicate, fragrant wine with floral, apricot and almond notes, it suited both dishes.

Parkinson and her teams of sommeliers have tasted every wine on the restaurants’ lists with the cuisine and continue to taste new wines every Tuesday in each location.

Hakkasan’s wine list is formatted to minimize confusion.  Various sections reflect the categories that Parkinson has placed the wines for Hakkasan’s guests. Each title is followed by a simple, brief explanation. Each page essentially is a separate list.

The lists vary by location, due to availability of the various wines, but Parkinson noted, at their hearts, they are all similar.

The  New York wine list, has about 350 wines, listed in order of body and flavor from light to rich, starting at $30 for the Chilean Riesling, Neblina Vineyard Leyda 2008, and climbing to almost $3,000 for a 1982 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Virtually every wine-producing region in the world is represented, including Greece and New York’s Finger Lakes with Dr. Konstantine Frank Rkatsiteli. There are also 23 different sakes. Nine wines are available by the glass.

Sauvignon Blanc is the group’s top seller by the glass. At the New York Hakkasan it’s Astrolabe, a dry, full bodied New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that goes for $15 a glass or $57 a bottle.

Parkinson says the restaurant’s top selling red is a tempranillo-based Rioja Reserva, Remelluri 2008, which goes for $80 a bottle.

Hakkasan’s menu often pairs best with wines that are fruity, have soft tannins and are light to medium in body, she said, adding, “Sherry is very good with the food – Tio Pepe [Fine Sherry] or a dry Amontillado Sherry with our food is one of my favorites.”

Hakkasan NY, 311 W 43rd St, New York, NY 10036 (212) 776-1818

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