River Stone Malbec with bitter melon (pic: Vino Joy News)
Hong Kong Wine

The unlikely marriage: Malbec and Cantonese seafood

Convention dictates that white wines go with seafood and red wines go with red meat. Even when wine lovers venture out of the convention to match a seafood dish with red wines, experts dutifully advise a light-bodied and medium-bodied red wines. Cue the Beaujolais and Pinot Noirs.

Convention dictates that white wines go with seafood and red wines go with red meat. Even when wine lovers venture out of the convention to match a seafood dish with red wines, experts dutifully advise a light-bodied red wine. Cue the Beaujolais and Pinot Noir.

Jacky Luk, head sommelier at three-michelin starred Forum, likes to break the red-with-meat and white-with-fish rule and matched Malbecs with five of the restaurant's signature dishes (pic: Vino Joy News)
Jacky Luk, chief sommelier at three-michelin starred Forum, likes to break the red-with-meat and white-with-fish rule and matches Malbecs with five of the restaurant’s signature dishes (pic: Vino Joy News)

In Cantonese cuisine, however, a knowledgeable sommelier would revel in the freedom to break conventions and boldly match red wines even high-altitude Malbecs with some of the city’s most celebrated seafood dishes.

The varied Cantonese cooking methods of braising and pan-frying can transform the texture of the fish in various ways. This means a full-bodied red that would normally ruin a delicately steamed fish with a mouthful of copper taste would otherwise match perfectly with a deep-fried or braised meaty fish in a rich sauce.

One strong advocate and proponent of the philosophy is Jacky Luk, chief sommelier at three-Michelin starred Cantonese restaurant Forum. Seafood dishes propriate to its texture and sauce can stand up to a bolder red wine like Argentine Malbec, says Luk, who boasts years of experiences in hospitality industry.

Here are five pairings that Luk has curated to demonstrate that wine lovers should be confident in choosing a Malbec to accompany Cantonese dishes even seafood.


Catena Alta 2017 paired with Forum’s braised grouper with pork belly and garlic

Braised grouper with pork belly and garlic
Braised grouper with pork belly and garlic goes hand in hand with Catena Alta (pic: Vino Joy News)

Abalone reigns supreme at Forum, but it’s the restaurant’s well-executed and masterful understanding of Cantonese cuisine that kept the crowds coming back for five decades.

The braised grouper cooked with pork belly in a thick umami-rich sauce, according to Luk, stands up to Catena Alta 2017, an elegant and high-altitude Malbec from the iconic Argentine winery.

A hearty and robust fish like the grouper when braised has a firm and chewy texture. This means it can take on a medium- to full-bodied red rather than just a light rose or Pinot, Luk explains.

Additionally, he stresses the sauce in the dish, which is made from chicken broth and soy sauce, means it has enough flavor to match this complex, high-altitude Malbec from a warm vintage. The fact that the grouper is cooked with fatty pork belly means that a red wine definitely triumphs over a white.


Catena Zapata Nicasia Vineyard Malbec 2016 with baked lobster in soy sauce

baked lobster with nicasa (pic: Vino Joy News)
Baked lobster and Catena Zapta’s Nicasia Vineyard is a powerful duo not to be missed (pic: Vino Joy News)

With this pairing, Luk echoes again the importance of considering seafood’s texture and sauce. Usually in Cantonese cuisine, diners are familiar with steamed lobster, at Forum, chef Adam Wong baked the lobster instead. In order to achieve the glistening sheen and optimize the fresh flavors, the chef actually poured hot oil over the lobster at the end to lock in all the flavors, Luk explains.

It’s then served with a drizzle of reduced soy sauce cooked down with a touch of sugar and chicken broth. The result is true to Asian cuisine’s pursuit of umami, which is another factor in considering wine pairing, Luk says.

The wine Luk picked to match with the dish is a 2016 vintage of Catena Zapata’s Nicasia Mablec.

Catena Zapata Nicasia Vineyard 2016 with 24 months aged in oak shows abundant ripe black fruits and sweet spices, soft and well-integrated tannins, and presents a nice bouquet of developing notes of bitter chocolate and dried herbs. This, according to Luk is another plus for considering pairing with umami rich dishes.

“When a wine is aged, its secondary and tertiary notes will pair so well with umami taste. I don’t know the exact science behind it but it works, and we often pair aged Bordeaux or Amarone with seafood, and it’s fantastic,” he expands, while appealing diners to go out of their white-wine-with-fish comfort zone.

“They often try white wines or Champagne but when we recommend red wine for the pairing, they are surprised but amazed. For me there’s no rule. It depends on cooking method and sauce,” says the sommelier.


Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard River Stones Malbec 2017 with stir fried bitter melon with fish mince

River Stone Malbec with bitter melon (pic: Vino Joy News)
River Stones Malbec with Forum’s bitter melon with fish mince is unexpected but satisfying (pic: Vino Joy News)

One of the more intriguing pairings is matching Forum’s bitter melon with fish mince with Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard River Stones Malbec 2017. The highest vineyard site in Mendoza at 5000 feet above sea level, Adrianna Vineyards is considered to be the South American equivalent to “grand cru”.

The bitter vegetable often shunned by western foodies is a household staple at many Chinese families. The bitterness of the melon combined with black bean paste and minced fish makes an unexpected but delicious combination.

The genius of the dish as Luk enthused is that it’s a perfect match for Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard River Stones 2017 Malbec. The wine is produced from a small plot of vineyard rich in oval white stones, which was the site of an ancient
riverbed.

“High altitude wines tend to have herbaceousness and is a perfect match for the bitter melon. The bitterness in the dish will soften the tannins in the wine. I recommend guests to drink the wine first, then taste the dish,” says Luk.


Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae 2017 with Country style pan-fried chicken

Catena Zapata Mundus offers balanced pairing to pan-friend chicken in Qian Li sauce (pic: Vino Joy News)
Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae offers balanced pairing to pan-friend chicken in Qian Li sauce (pic: Vino Joy News)

The chicken dish is rather versatile to pair with Malbecs, but the sauce in the dish again is the deciding factor in narrowing down Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Mundus Bacillus Terrae 2017 for the pairing, says Luk.

Made from seafood, mushroom, asparagus and sugar, the Qian Li sauce or Thousand Mile Sauce used in this humble dish is named after the fact that in the past people would travel with the sauce for thousands of miles, bringing flavors of home to a foreign land.

Sweet and rich, the sauce that coats the pan-fried chicken works magic to bring out the complexity of Mundus, a 100% Malbec named after the microorganism found in the 1.4 ha vineyard at Adrianna Vineyard.


Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae 2017 with Braised oxtail with potato

braised oxtail and Fortuna 2017 (pic: Vino Joy News)
Braised oxtail and Catena Zapata’s Fortuna Terrae is a match made in heaven (pic: Vino Joy News)

Malbec can’t go wrong with the slow-cooked, succulent and fork-tender oxtail. At Forum, the oxtail is braised for four hours in a thick Chinese spice sauce with soy sauce, star anise, cloves and peppercorns. Chef Adam left the bone in, which offers more texture, flavor and most importantly gives form to this hearty dish.

Catena’s Fortuna Terrae, which packs layers of fruits with a nice core of tension, offers the structure and body to match a dish like braised oxtail.

Additionally, Luk notes thanks to the concentration of fruits in the wine, it managed to hold its own even when the oxtail is doused in a bath of potent Chinese spice sauce. A lesser wine, as he says, would be completely overwhelmed by the sauce.


Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino 2018 with steamed cha chiu pork bun

Argentino with pork bun (pic: Vino Joy News)
Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino holds up well with Char Siu bao (pic: Vino Joy News)

One can’t talk about Cantonese food without talking about dim sum. With so many varieties of these delicately made buns and dumplings, a staple here in Hong Kong is Char Siu Bao, the steamed pork bun filled with the lightly spiced, sweet and savory roast pork.

This yum cha must-have can be a nice pairing to Catena Zapata’s Argentino 2018, a fleshy red made from old-vine Malbecs of over 100 years old grown at 1,000 meters above sea level. The sweet spices in the wine and fruits lift the fatty roast pork, while its vibrant acidity also enlivens this dense bun.

Next time, when you are dining at Forum or at any Cantonese restaurant, feel empowered and confident to swap your white wine with a bottle of Malbec to pair with Cantonese dishes, even seafood.

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