When your family members walk through the door having flown, driven, and walked from all over the country, one thing is for certain: They’ll be hungry. So what’s a cook, with a rapidly-approaching date with a turkey, to do? Order in.
Okay, so we know that takeout isn’t the most festive option—but it just so happens that Chinese food pairs perfectly with something that is festive: Champagne! Though their invention occurred on near-opposite sides of the globe, Champagne (and sparkling wine, for that matter) and Chinese food are the best of friends.
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Here’s why (and how) to pair them, whether it's the night before a holiday or a regular old weeknight:
Why Champagne Works with Chinese Food
There are two primary reasons that Champagne goes well with Chinese food—the first being bubbles. Gary Itkin, the Buyer at Bottlerocket Wine and Spirit—home to an entire section of wines that pair with takeout, explained to me that Champagne works with Chinese food for the same reason that beer does. He said, “The bubbles in Champagne—and any sparkling wine or even seltzer—scrape and refresh the palate with every sip. So when we’re talking about greasy foods that leave a residue of spice on the tongue, the Champagne will cleanse them.”
The second reason is the acidity in Champagne. Gary explained, “Acidity in wine helps cut through fatty textures and balance sweet flavors. Many Chinese dishes have both.”
(When I asked him if some would consider it wasteful to enjoy a bottle of Champagne with such a flavorful cuisine that may override the wine's flavor, he said, “You’re never wasting Champagne—unless you make it into a mimosa.”)
What to Consider When Selecting a Champagne or Sparkling Wine
Complexity: Gary explained that in Chinese food, there exists “a myriad of styles from very rich and very spicy to leaner,” so it may be worth knowing what you’re going to order (or make!) before you choose your wine. “To put it succinctly,” he told me, “the simpler the dish, the simpler the sparkling wine you should choose; the more complex the dish, the more complex the wine should be—but they all work.”
Sweetness: Sweetness, Gary said, ultimately comes down to personal preference, but there are some rules of thumb you can follow, if you choose to. Gary said that the sweeter the Champagne you drink—think a demi-sec—the sweeter your food will taste, and vice versa. He said, “If you’re drinking a dry Champagne, it will taste slightly less dry if you’re eating sweeter foods.” He added that “a lot of Americans ask for dry wines because we’ve been told that sweet is bad—but I’ve found that Americans adore sweet wines.” Branch out and taste new levels of sweetness—you may discover, as Gary has, that “a proper demi-sec Champagne can be absolutely sublime with a lot of simple spices and dishes with red chile.”
Grapes: As with all wines, the grapes used in Champagne and sparkling wines are highly indicative of what it will pair well with. In general, Gary said that a “pinot noir-based Champagne or sparkling wine will work well with meatier dishes like cumin-spiced lamb,” but for a slightly milder fish-based dish, try a one hundred-percent chardonnay Blanc de Blanc.
Price: This is of course one of the greatest—and more limiting factors—in choosing a wine. Gary said that there’s no need to spend a lot of money on a Champagne or sparkling wine: There are several in the $15 to $20 range that can be nice. But he said, “It is fun to go overkill and open your wallet for a nice vintage Champagne.”
What you already have: When in doubt, Gary said, use what you already have. “Everybody has bottles of Champagne that have been sitting around their house waiting for a special occasion—but they often go bad because they’ve been saved for 25 years and a special occasion never arose.” Why not treat tonight like a special occasion?
But really, there are no rules: Throughout our conversation, Gary stressed and re-stressed that there is no wrong answer when choosing wine for yourself. He said, “When it comes to what you like, there is only advice that people have set out for you—but if you don’t care for it, it’s never going to work for you,” so experiment! It’s a good excuse to taste a lot of wines!
Georges Gardet Pol Gardere Champagne Brut NV: A blend of all three Champagne grapes, it’s a perfect blend for any Chinese takeout and retails for under $40.
Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Brut 2011: An American sparkling wine made from one hundred-percent Chardonnay grapes that would work with a slightly milder Chinese dishes and is also under $40.
Terrazo Prosecco NV: An Italian prosecco that’s extremely affordable (it clocks in at around $10) and off-dry, so it’s slightly sweeter than the other two options.
How to Serve It
When it comes to serving Champagne or a sparkling wine, there’s really only one option. Gary says, “I would love to see people buy a case of half-bottles of Champagne and some bendy straws and put them out on the table with Chinese takeout and have everybody have at it.”
He suggests getting a variety of half bottles so everyone can choose their own and taste multiples—and honestly, we can’t think of a better new tradition.
Better Yet, Skip the Takeout—Make Your Own "Have-In"
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