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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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