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Mar 6, 2007
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Wine With. . . Chinese Take-Out (General Tso's Chicken)

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas


Unlike the fictitious Betty Crocker or Uncle Ben, there actually was a General Tso - though whether he ever tasted the dish named in his honor is debatable.  The chicken dish named for General Tso (sometimes written Tsao, or Gao) is offered on the menu of every Chinese restaurant in the United States. 


An article written by Michael Browning in the Washington Post called 'Who was General Tso, and Why are We Eating his Chicken?' filled us in on some of the details of the General's life.  Tso Tsungtang was born in the Hunan province in 1812, and according to Browning, led an unremarkable life until he went off to battle in China's civil war, the Taiping Rebellion.  By all accounts he proved a brilliant, ruthless and successful warrior. 


As to the recipe, one story has it that Tso's wife created it in honor of her husband, but most food historians dismiss this.  More likely, they say, it was developed by a Chinese immigrant who fled the messy aftermath of the war and eventually opened a restaurant in New York City.  One thing certain is that General Tso's Chicken is not a real Chinese recipe.  'It's inauthentic,' said food writer Fuschia Dunlop on a recent NPR show.  Arguably the most famous Hunan dish in the world, you'll not find the General's chicken in Hunan, where it is generally considered too sweet.  Yet General Tso's Chicken is the most popular item in American Chinese restaurants, especially as a take-out order.  That's why we undertook the task of trying to find the best wines to go with it. 


Not surprisingly, the greatest challenge lay in the sweetness of the sauce, which simply swamped any of the more subtle, delicate wines we sampled.  Every wine that worked with the dish had to counterbalance the sugar with a certain measure of sweetness itself - inherent sweetness provided by either residual sugar or assertive fruitiness.  General Tso also ran roughshod over wines characterized by acidity - Sauvignon Blanc, for example - turning them mouth-puckeringly sour.  The red chilis in the sauce didn't make the dish unpleasantly spicy, but they were fiery enough to test the mettle of some of the wines -- and once again, the fruitier the wine, the better the match.  Complexity is wasted on the General.  There's so much going on in the basic recipe -- sugar! spice! vinegar! ginger! -- that multi-faceted wines can't compete.  They lose their edge and become boringly one-dimensional.  So for the most part, simplicity and fruitiness is the way to go with General Tso.




Approx. Price



Albinea Canali, Lambrusco Dell'Emilia (Italy) 'Ottocentonero'

(Imported by VB Imports)





This frothy red tastes initially sweet but finishes fairly dry.  Filled with bright berry flavors, it was a near-perfect match for a dish that itself is somewhat sweet.  Many of the wines we tried had trouble dealing with General Tso's peppery heat, but the bubbles here did the trick.  Though sparkling Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna was the top-selling imported wine in America back in the 1970s, few wine lovers take it seriously today.  This Lambrusco, at least when paired with Chinese take-out, can change minds.




Blue Fish, Pfalz (Germany) Riesling 2005

(Imported by Palm Bay Imports)




We tried two Rieslings with this dish.  One hailed from Australia's Clare Valley.  It was considerably more expensive than this German rendition, and while more nuanced when tasted by itself, just couldn't compete with the sweet and spicy chicken.  By contrast, this fruity, off-dry wine worked extremely well, its peachy flavors providing a pretty complement to the flavorful food.

Sometimes the simpler wine works best.




Mark Kreydenweiss, Alsace (France) Pinot Blanc 'Kritt' 2004

(Imported by Wilson Daniels)




The attractive mineral-tinged secondary notes that make this wine quite appealing when sipped on its own largely disappeared when we tried it with General Tso's chicken.  Nonetheless, the bright apple and pear fruit flavors made it a quite pleasant companion.




Marqueés de Cáceres, Rioja (Spain) Dry Rosé 2005

(Imported by Vineyard Brands)





This was another case in which simple worked well.  The wine displays attractive strawberry flavors with good, balancing acidity.  When paired with a dish that has so many different competing flavors in itself, that's all you need.




Rodney Strong, Sonoma County (California) Zinfandel 'Reserve' 2004





Our clear favorite from the five reds we tried, this Zinfandel didn't fit the mold of being simple and direct.  The wine is quite nuanced, with briary, even leathery notes underlying its bright fruit.  But that fruit - rich and ripe - is what allowed it to marry so well with the meal.  Adding to its appeal was its not seeming heady or heavy.  This is a dinner-weight Zin, not a port wannabe.