Shiraz with your Peking Duck? Sacre bleu!

China's rapid emergence as a major international wine market has sparked intense debate among growers about how best to pair their wines with the country's rich array of culinary delights.

Drawn by the prospect of vast, relatively untapped pools of new Chinese consumers, wine growers from around the world are competing to claim that their products go best with the Asian giant's unique national dishes.

The debate among French foodies about how to pair wine and food is as old as the country's famous vineyards, but it is relatively new to China. Predictably, there seems to be little agreement between the foreign "experts".

"There are a lot of people thinking about that, making courses and writing books," said Robert Beynat, the French chief executive of Vinexpo, the world's biggest wine fair which is holding its Asian edition in Hong Kong this week.

"We have conferences about that, but I'm not a specialist. I drink red with Chinese food, even the sweet and sour. It's personal."

Among the growers and distributors at the three-day expo, which concludes Thursday, it seems everyone has an opinion about a topic that vexes even the best sommeliers.

After all, the food pairing is essential to the whole enjoyment of wine and, from a purely business point of view, to the industry's mission to encourage the Chinese to drink it.

Georges Haushalter, president of the Bordeaux Wine Council which represents growers from the French region that dominates the Chinese market, has a complicated theory about Chinese food and acidity in wine.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, he concludes that as long as you stick with a Bordeaux all will be well.

"The critical factor is acidity because of the spicy nature of Chinese cuisine, because of the mixture of sweet and sourness," the Frenchman told AFP.

"You need a good level of acidity in the wine so it can sustain the strength of the Chinese cuisine. To this end, Bordeaux is well equipped."

Although the varied dishes of a Chinese banquet made it almost impossible to offer a one-wine-fits all suggestion, red wines from Bordeaux were, for better or worse, the most popular choice, he said.

"I can't guarantee it will always work, but because of the good level of acidity and the good balance of Bordeaux wines, most of the time it works pretty much better than it would with other wines."

While French appellations clearly dominate the market for high-end imported wine in China, countries such as Australia, Chile and South Africa are important players in the mid-range and entry levels.

Nikki Palun, the Mandarin-speaking export manager for De Bortoli Wines of Australia, has travelled extensively in China and says wines should be chosen to match the qualities of the country's regional cuisines.

From the hearty pork, lamb and pickled vegetable dishes of the northeast, to the fiery spices of southwestern Sichuan and the mild, steamed specialities of the southern Cantonese-speaking region, there are many opportunities for wines to find their perfect culinary pairing, she said.

But of the great French varietals, she preferred the pinots of Burgundy to the heavier cabernets of Bordeaux to go with her Chinese dinners, due to the tannin which helps give a wine its flavour and structure.

"I'll stick with chardonnay and Burgundy. Pinot is a great match with a lot of Chinese cuisine, the pork and duck," she said.

"The tannin (of a Bordeaux) can clash with the chillies. If you're eating something that's delicate in flavour, the shiraz or cabernet can be quite overpowering.

"That's why pinot can be a bit more harmonious for Chinese foods. But it depends on the region because in China each region has a different cuisine."

For Sichuan, she suggested an off-dry riesling for a little sweetness to offset the chillies.

"If you drink something with a strong tannin structure, it's just going to make the spice even hotter," she said.

Philippe Garnier, of Vins-Vignerons which represents the major chateaux of Burgundy, agreed that Chinese diners too often overlooked white wine as a match for seafood-based or spicy dishes.

"It doesn't have the tannin, which gives the spicy character to the red wines," he said.

The discussion may have been going on in France for centuries, but in China it is only just beginning, and Haushalter of the Bordeaux Wine Council said: "It's a big debate and I don't think it's going to end."

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