SHANGHAI Daily’s gourmand writers are introducing lesser-known regional Chinese dishes that are trendy in Shanghai including northeastern large wok stew, Sichuan beef stew and Guizhou dishes. For a variety of reasons, it’s the latter that intrigues me the most. A few years back, I traveled to Guizhou Province to be a judge at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Spirits Selection competition. The superb quality of the local baijiu was no surprise but the unique local cuisine was a revelation.
Over 3,000 years ago, indigenous peoples living in what’s now Guizhou developed a distinct cuisine based on local plant and animal ingredients and ancient food preparation methods like pickling, boiling and grilling. During the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BC), the culinary culture of Guizhou was embellished with new ingredients and techniques from today’s Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangdong provinces. Then in the 18th century the chili pepper arrived.
Modern Guizhou cooking, or Qian cuisine as its commonly called, is famous for spicy-sour dishes. These palate stimulating sensations present challenges for wine pairing. Spicy foods benefit from sweet, off-sweet or fruity wines, while sour dishes are often good matches for wines that are high in acid. Therefore, natural wine companions include sweet wines with good acidity, think Sauternes or Tokaij, or fruit forward wines with ample freshness like New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.
As a rule, acidity is more important in white wines than red wines, but there are red wines where acidity is an essential component. This is especially the case with some popular styles of Italian wine. Many Italian red wines offer sour-tangy sensations, somewhat reminiscent of the sourness in many Guizhou dishes. One fine example is Barbera variety.
Ampelographers trace the origin of the Barbera grape back 800 years to Monferrato in Piedmont. Growers in Piedmont would traditionally select inferior vineyards to grow Barbera and save their best vineyards for the noble Nebbiolo variety. Exploiting the high yield nature of the Barbera variety, winemakers produced inexpensive wines that the locals favored for daily drinking. They were not considered fine wines.
Then about 30 years ago a small number of remarkably good Barbera wines started popping up. Instead of the diluted and angular lightweights of the past, a new breed of Piedmont winemakers started making low yield wines of substance and style. More producers started using oak to age and sometime even to ferment their wines. Welcome to our new age of premium quality Barbera wines featuring amble fruit, structure and complexity.
Traditionally, top Barbera wines were produced in the Barbera d’Asti DOCG and Barbera d’Alba DOC regions. Barbera d’Alba DOC wines tend to be more full-bodied and round with sensations of black and red berries and soft tannins; while Babera d’Asti wines are typically fresher, offering lively red fruit and berry aromas and flavors with pronounced acidity. Both styles pair well with many Guizhou dishes, but there’s a new kid on the block that’s equally accommodating to challenging sour and spicy flavors.
The small hilly enclave of Nizza is one of three Barbera d’Asti sub-regions. Formerly referred to as Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza, the region received its own DOCG status in 2014 and the wines are now labeled simply Nizza DOCG.
Nizza DOCG has the strictest winemaking requirements for Barbera wines. Maximum yield requirements are lower and while minimum alcohol content of 13 is higher than in other regions. Barbera is the only permitted grape. Nizza DOCG wines must be aged in oak at least 18 months with 6 months bottle aging and Nizza DOCG Riserva wines requiring 30 months in oak and 12 months bottle aging. As a result, the great majority of wines offer intensity, balance and age-worthiness while still retaining the trademark Barbera freshness.
Barbera wines remain underrepresented in the China market; but fortunately, two highly respected Nizza DOCG producers have wines available in Shanghai. L’Armangia winery was at one point best known for their Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Moscato white wines but over the past few decades they have been a catalyst in raising the reputation and popularity of Barbera wines.
The L’Armangnia Titon Nizza DOCG is a wonderful expression of the elegant and sophisticated wines we coming to expect from this new denomination. The wine features lively cherry, strawberry and red currant aromas with intense bright red fruit flavors, fine tannins and a long clean finish.
This wine is a natural companion to many Guizhou dishes as the fruitiness of the wine assuages spiciness while the solid acidity mirrors the natural sourness of the dishes. An even richer, deeper and more complex wine is the Vignali Barbera Nizza DOCG Riserva, but this wine performs best with less overtly sour meat dishes.
The legendary Piedmont producer Michele Chiarlo acquired the Nizza Tenuta La Court estate in 1995. Their basic Le Orme Barbera d’Asti has been a favorite of mine for decades because it offers a refined Barbera drinking experience at a low cost. However, the Michele Chiarlo Cipressi Nizza DOCG and La Court Nizza DOCG Riserva are clearly superior wines with more structure, depth and age-worthiness.
Keeping true to their varietal heritage, even the weightiest aged Barbera wines retain good acidity so they are best served slightly chilled, or about 16-18 degrees Celsius. The Nizza DOCG Riserva wines also require ample breathing time.
Where to buy in Shanghai
Ai Xuan Wines, 16E 168 Zhenning Rd, 138-6200-3648
L’Armangia Titon Nizza DOCG
L’Armangia Vignali Barbera DOCG Riserva
Michele Chiarlo La Court Nizza DOCG Riserva
Michele Chiarlo Cipressi Nizza DOCG
Michele Chiarlo Le Orme Barbera d’Asti DOCG
Barbera is the only authorized variety for Nizza DOCG wines.
Angular is used to describe tart wines with pronounced acidity.
L’Armangia Titon Nizza DOCG