RICE TO THE OCCASION
Ubiquitous throughout East Asia, the world of rice wine is incredibly diverse. We meet three experts in milky Korean makgeolli, funky Okinawan awamori and amber Chinese huangjiu.
Tim Tse has worked for 12 years at Dong Lai Shun, famous for its mutton hotpot as well as being a bastion of fine Huaiyang food in Hong Kong. This delicate and refined cuisine from Yangzhou informed much of the culinary culture of Jiangnan, the region around the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze. Located within this cultural sphere are 2,000-year-old urban settlements such as Hangzhou and Nanjing (former capitals of China) and the ancient city of Shaoxing, which for centuries has produced the finest huangjiu (yellow wine), fermented glutinous rice wine aged in ceramic vessels.
Just as Champagne is analogous to the bubbly produced in that region, Shaoxing is synonymous with this Chinese yellow wine, although quality wines are also produced in Taiwan. The flavours are complex and vary so much that it takes a while to appreciate its characteristics.
“Some Shaoxing wines are sweeter, some are bitter, but that doesn’t mean that sweeter is better,” Tse says. “It’s important to pick a Shaoxing wine according to your own taste.” However, Tse warns that a limestone taste means the wine is of low quality. The taste of alcohol should also be subtle. “Good Shaoxing has a milder and subtler alcoholic taste compared to low-quality ones. You can tell the wine is of good quality if it has a long-lasting aftertaste.”
Non-chinese will immediately pick up on its similarity to sherry or Madeira, with an aroma of bitter citrus peel. The lakes and rivers in Zhejiang province provide minerality and saltiness. Some wines may have notes of dried mushrooms, some intensely savoury, almost like an alcoholic soy sauce.
The quality of Shaoxing also gets better with age. 50- and 100-year-old wines can be found in China, ranging from elegant, amber liquids – light and lustrous in colour – to wines in darker hues of brown that are thicker in texture and taste.
Traditionally, whole preserved plums are added to Shaoxing wine for a fruitier taste. “You may enjoy Shaoxing wine with ice and lemon slices, or sprinkle on preserved plum powder to add a sweet note to the wine. However, if you come across a good huangjiu, I would suggest drinking it without adding anything, that way you can truly taste the wine’s complex flavours,” Tse says.
Shaoxing wine makes good cocktails, despite its age-old traditions. “I tried a cocktail made of 10-year-old Shaoxing wine mixed with lemon juice, soda and topped with plum powder. Called huangtudi (yellow earth), it’s light amber in colour, with a refreshing taste and best served in summer,” he says.
Traditionally, Shaoxing wine is served in small white porcelain cups, which are better suited to maintaining the temperature of the wine – the best serving temperature is 38°C. It does not require any decanting, although Chinese fine-dining restaurants will serve good huangjiu in a separate ceramic dispenser, warmed in hot water.
“Gu Yue Long Shan and Pagoda are two brands producing good-quality Shaoxing, and the price range is broad enough to cater to everyone,” Tse notes.