Beyond tea and lager: pairing wine with A.Wong’s cuisine

We recently partnered with the Starchefs and A.Wong teams for the creation of a delicious Chinese New Year menu that you can get delivered to the comfort of your home.  A luscious celebration of the arrival of the year of the Ox, next Friday February 12th. We have designed multiple pairing line-ups, to elevate your hedonistic experience to the next level.

Pairing the best wine with a complex and delicate cuisine such as that of Andrew Wong is not exactly straightforward – it requires thought, flavour awareness and, above all, a great sense of discovery. All qualities of A.Wong’s Head of Wine and Beverage, Daniel Murray, with whom we caught up to discuss all-things-wine.

Wanderlust: Daniel, you have a solid experience as a sommelier, working with western cuisines. It’s perhaps easier to think of wine pairings an Italian, French or Spanish food context because they’ve historically evolved with wine. Which is not necessarily true about Asian, and certainly not of Chinese, that doesn’t have much of historical tradition of wine-drinking. So I assume it was a bit of a challenge for you when you started working at A.Wong .

Daniel Murray:
 That’s a very good point, Before, I worked with French and British cuisines in which wine has a history alongside food. And then with Chinese cuisine the answers are not that obvious.  On the other hand, Andrew [Wong]’s work is slightly different from traditional Chinese cuisine. I feel that what he does is quite unique. The way we approach it with wine is by not looking at classic pairings for what are not classical matches. We taste the food, the sauces and test what really works. Take the Wagyu beef dish, for example. Guests come in and assume it will go well with a bulky Barolo. In fact, that’s not the best pairing, because you need to look at the dish as a whole. You need to look at the sauces and the spices which I find that are much more important than the protein itself.
The sauces play a huge part [in A.Wong’s menu] and a major part of my work is understanding the flavours that are used and how we can then serve something alongside it.

WW: Are there any flavours or ingredients that are particularly challenging in terms of wine pairing?

DM: Absolutely. We use things like shrimp oil, dried fish, fish sauce… all these really pungent and strong flavours. That’s something we always have to keep in mind. We can go the classical route of balancing spice, saltiness and sweetness. But then we can always take a more interesting route and look at it texturally and see how the wine can be used for its texture.

WW: That’s an interesting point you’re making because usually, when thinking of food and wine parings, people focus a lot on structural components like tannins or acidity, and you’re bringing in another level which is a more holistic approach to texture. It makes me think of factors like phenolic complexity and the potential of orange wines, for example. So I guess my next question is which styles, beyond the classical go-to off-dry Riesling or the sparkling demi-sec, work particularly well with A.Wong’s cuisine.

DM:  I think we should be adventurous and not go down the route of sticking to one style. Look, there’s a reason why classics work. The off-dry Rieslings from the Mosel, for example, they really work beautifully. But the challenge is to go beyond that and have a bit of fun by trying other things that might work beautifully as well.  Viognier – I love it, and a rich and dense Condrieu is something I particularly enjoy surprising my guests with. South-African varietals is another one. So many great Chenin Blancs made by people lile Lismore or Elgin, maybe slightly bottle fermented or, with a touch of skin contact that again just drives the texture. I don’t tend to look at regions or appellations, but the textures, flavours, the story of the wine and how it fits the story of what we’re doing in the restaurant.

WW: So thinking specifically of the Chinese New Year menu. Are there any specific highlights, a specific dish for example, that you would single out and say, ‘Oh, this would be a great, for you guys to experiment at home and pair with a given wine’?

DM:  There scope of The Chinese New Year menu is massive and leads back to one
of the challenges of working with Andrew: everything is so different. The whole idea behind his cooking is that there’s incredible scope and lots of difference between the dishes.  So take the dish called ‘Saliva poached Wontons’ – it might sound terrible but it’s such a delicious dish with its slippery texture. I think that very mineral, salty wines, like the Suronde or Cume do Avia we’ve included in the pairing, are absolutely fantastic with it. You will really be able to do a compare & contract between the oily wontons and the salty, gravely wines. That will work beautifully.

 WW: A question we get a lot from customers is which wine they can drink when using Sichuan sauce…. Which wine(s) do you think can be a good pick when you have these complex, intense characters?

DM: Again, it’s easy to get stuck in the off-dry Riesling rut. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE off-dry Riesling. We have a bottle of Spätlese in the fridge that we’re going to have it for dinner. And that would be great go-to. But lots of guests are actually not into off-dry styles. When you have a dish with vinegars, oils or a load of pepper – it will be quite jarring. So I’d say let’s go for something broad and rich. Like a white Rhôbe variety would be fantastic. Or why not have a red?! Something like a springy Beaujolais or a Zweigelt from Austria – lower tannins, fruit-driven, lighter, beautiful red wines. Those would work beautifully with Andrew’s food.

I think it’s our job to convince people how to spend their money to really elevate their experience. And maybe we can move away from those classical go-tos – the jasmine tea, the lager, the off-dry Riesling –  and be a bit more adventurous.

WW: Daniel, we’re now talking in the context of our collaboration for the Chinese New Year that people can get delivered to their home. But hopefully, in a few months, people will be able to return to the restaurant – which by the way has recently been awarded two Michelin start – congratulations! What are your goals, ambitions and hopes for the Chinese New Year? Talking specifically about the wine programme: when you go back to service what do you hope to achieve?

DM: One of the biggest struggles and challenges we have when working every in a restaurant is finding the time to do implement all these amazing ideas in our head. Services are so intense. Having the time, like we do now, to really change things is very very rare. You know, we’ve closed twice and reopened twice and each time we came back stronger. So we’re like: Well, let’s use the time and do a whole new drinks menu! It’s not just about the wine, I work with every single beverage. We’ll be making our own beer and have been doing our gin for a while. All this great fun stuff that we now have the time to develop.

We’ll also be expanding the wine list. Like every restaurant in London we do the best we can with zero storage!  The wine bottles share fridge space the vegetables. But we’re really investing in more space (we’ve just bought a new wine fridge) so we can get more interesting and more top-end bottles. The idea is to grow the wine list and really make it part of the culture [of the restaurant]. When I started at A.Wong, and the reason Andrew and I started working together, the drinks weren’t really part of the offering – it was mostly about the great food. Let’s know have fun with it! There’s so much we can do and lots of interesting things on the horizon.

WW: To end on a more personal note: can you tell us what your go-to lockdown wine has been?

DM:   That’s a difficult one. I drink a lot of Chardonnay. I live with my partner and she also loves Chardonnay so we’ve been really enjoying drinking together. Everything from White Burgundy to rich Californians. So yes, I think we’ve been drinking our bodyweight in Chardonnay!

Browse our pairing suggestions for A.Wong’s Chinese New Year menu that you can order via Starchefs and get delivered to your own home!