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A Wine Adventure in Shanghai

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By Zoltan Szabo

Wine consumption across China is increasing, while grape growing and winemaking are also becoming more popular. Though the lack of wine drinking culture is slowing the process a bit, including a lack of wine service expertise in the restaurant sector, in some time we’re sure to see pioneering steps made in the Chinese wine industry. When it comes to all things vinous, whatever happens next in this trendsetting country is bound to be a hot topic in the world of wine.

According to my friend, the great wine writer Jancis Robinson MW, China has yet to become familiar with the possibilities wine culture has to offer. "To the great mass of the Chinese population, grape-based wine is as exotic as Mars," said Robinson. "But, to the growing middle-class, it is something new and attractively Western in image, even if the quality of local, Chinese wine is still pretty dire."

She also adds that the country’s growing number of wealthy citizens are already investing time and money in the global fine wine market, giving the overall acceptance of the drink a hopeful boost.

On a recent trip to China, I decided to visit the busiest night market in Shanghai to test out my theory that world wines pair well with local foods! And, when most wouldn’t even dream of matching Chinese street food & wines, I took to the streets to prove the critics wrong.

Picture this: Master Sommelier John Szabo and I are walking down a rather smelly and bustling street with an ice bucket of chilled Champagne. John’s also toting a few whites and rosés while I’m lugging around a case full of reds. As we make stops at different stands, we try out the food and start dreaming up instant wine matches. Our unconventional night-on-the-town sparks the curiosity of the vendors and catches the eye of both locals and tourists alike. As our camera crew films away to capture this glorious, unique and imaginative culinary journey, we can’t help but think of the person that made it all possible! I must thank again Rudy Guo, my partner for the soon-to-be-opened downtown Shanghai resto, Spirit Atelier, for organizing this eye-opening experience.

Here’s how it all went down. To begin, we went shopping for wines at a regional mall that boasted an incredibly good wine store with strong international selections. Accompanied by the great Bruce Wallner of Splendido (a definite Master Sommelier in the making) and Johnny Szabo, I picked up a variety of wines from all over the globe. We stuck mostly to recent vintages, except a 2002 Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh (a white from the Southwest of France) that showed some surprising maturity. Also in our cart were couple of Chinese wines from Grace Vineyards (a Chardonnay and Rosé respectively), a lovely Mosel Spetlese Riesling, a well made Gr?ner Veltliner, a Valpolicella Classico, an NV Deutz Champagne, an average Beaujolais, a very good red Burgundy and many more!

When we set foot in the market we also made a few crazy discoveries. First, unlike back home, drinking in public in Shanghai is not illegal! Although we were constantly professionally sampling, and spitting right on the street because it’s considered an acceptable ?rustic gesture?, we still felt right at home. The next thing we found out is that street cuisine is actually wine friendly. We came up with a lot of delicious flavour combinations I’ll discuss below. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the whole night was just plain fun.

Here’s a re-cap of some of my best and, unfortunately not so great, street food and wine matches:

Skewered BBQ baby octopus brushed with soy, chives, and lime.
OK this stuff is just divine! The plump, moist textured octopus meat also has light crunch. It’s a superb match with many whites, the Beaujolais and the Pinot Noir.

Stinky Tofu
This local delicacy is a form of fermented tofu and it’s got strong one !@#$%^& odour. For those who can stand the stench it’s a popular snack found at Shanghai’s street stands and as a side dish in the city’s restos. The direct translation in Mandarin of stinky tofu is chou doufu. Occasionally chou is translated to mean "fragrant" in English. This may bring pleasant or floral thoughts to mind, but the smell is the complete opposite. To me the stuff reeked of gunpowder-dusted, suicidal, wet cat. Even the dousing of burning hot chili sauce couldn’t lead to a match with any of the wines. In a pinch, try it with local Chardonnay, although it won't be best! An ice cold Tsingtao beer, some Shochu or maybe even awamori might do it better justice.

Fried chicken wings with chili pepper sauce
This dish went went well with most wines (e.g. whites, rosé, reds) and perhaps worked best with Champagne.

Juicy pork dumplings
Apparently the stuffing inside these little dough packets is frozen first, then boiled. That means the first bite is piping hot, then it’s followed by a burst of very tasty juice. The Deetz NV Champer was more than appropriate than the others for this one. Even the scenario of the very busy and smelly street made this a "classic" match.

Grilled oysters with soy, citrus, Chinese spices and herbs
Local oysters are fairly large and meaty, giving two-bites. When enjoying this with the single vineyard Valpolicella Classico by Corte Sant' Alda, it’s just outstanding.

Other interesting street food items that I tried included marinated pig's nose and one-day-old skewered and marinated BBQ chicken. Oh boy, were they both good. I found the gelatinous texture of the pig's nose to be something pleasant and the just-killed chicken was slightly chewy, but turned flavoursome through a sweet marinade.

During my visit to Shanghai I also made a stop at the Grand Hyatt, which, to me, is one of the most spectacular hotels in the world! The reception is on the building’s 54th floor, where you can look up through the glass ceiling to get a glimpse of the hotel’s towering atrium of suites. Unbelievable! For an even more impressive view take the elevator 31 floors up to their Cloud 9 Lounge. It’s just one of the 11 food and beverage spots on-site that have 320 cooks working around the clock to keep them running.

If you too somehow find yourself in the Shanghai area, take my friend Chef Michael Blackie’s advice. As another partner on my trip, he recommends visiting a place called Babyface in Shanghai. Oh, and if you get a chance, don’t forget to ask Chef Shaun Anthony (former Sous for Gordon Ramsay and my chef partner in Spirit Atelier) about the "fire race" of the Flaming Lamborghinis at Bar Rouge, a landmark lounge in Shanghai.

Special thanks also goes out to the staff at ASC Wines in Shanghai for providing us space at their sophisticated Wine Residence to conduct our Red Wine with Oysters event. The presence of Shanghai trade colleagues and the media made it a smashing success! It’s events like these that are going to keep the wine buzz alive in China, so that locals continue to recognize how delicious and easily fine wine can be paired with their favourite foods.

As our awesome trip began to wrap up, it made me recall the recent debate surrounding street food back home in Toronto. City Hall is still stalling (no pun intended) on the idea of allowing street food other than hot dogs to be available in Toronto. Chefs like Guy Rubino have even been advocates of the issue in the past. Now, after discovering the variety of what was offered in the laneways of Shanghai, it would be even more interesting to see our city’s take on multi-cultural street-corner cuisine. I’m only a wine steward, and politics isn’t my thing, but it could very well be another great opportunity to hit the pavement with a few cases of wine. Who knows? sthere might even be some stinky tofu on the menu.


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