Wine and Spicy Food
Spicy foods, from a reasonably mild mole to a fiery hot chili sauce, add visceral excitement to dining. They also cry out for a beverage that will cool down the heat while simultaneously highlighting background flavors and textures. That’s where wine comes into play. Creating the ideal marriage of wine and spice can be challenging, but the results can be sublime.
Breaking the Rules
I am a great believer in rules, except when it comes to food and wine pairing. Unlike many of my fellow wine professionals, I believe that:
- Wine is a food that just happens to be in a glass.
- Just as anyone can choose anything he/she wants to eat, the same person should be able to choose anything that he/she wants to drink.
- Where spicy food is concerned, I can’t emphasize enough that the traditional “rules” should be trashed, and attention paid to some helpful guidelines that may lead us to highly successful wine and food pairings.
In general when pairing food and wine, the intensity of the food and the intensity of the wine should be nearly equivalent—meet power with power. Light dishes with light-bodied wines, red meats and rich sauces with reds.
But when it comes to spicy food, forget that. A Thai beef salad, redolent of fresh lime juice and chilies, is not going to work with most red wines, even though the protein in the dish is beef. Think of the rare beef as a condiment to the salad—a lovely, rich texture, but with the sweet/sour lime juice and the spice of the chilies as the “center of the plate.” Did someone say “off-dry Riesling” or “Cava,” that great affordable sparkling wine from the Catalan region of Spain? Congratulations! You get it.
Spicy Food Pairing Turnoffs
The fiery spice of chilies or other spice-laden ingredients can be a problem for many wines because of relatively high levels of alcohol in the wine, the tannins in red wines and oak-driven whites, and the relatively low acidity in popular wines from warm climates.
- High Alcohol—Every sip of wine, every bite of food amplifies both the alcohol in the wine and the heat of the dish. So unless you like to sweat while eating, high alcohol does not work with spicy food.
- Tannins—The astringent, near-bitter elements of wine make the heat of the dish “pop” while overwhelming every delicate nuance of flavor and texture in that dish.
- Low Acidity—Low levels of acidity don’t refresh or cleanse the palate of heat and spice, and don’t encourage another bite of food or another sip of wine.
Matches Made in Heaven
Let’s look at a semi-dry Riesling paired with that Thai beef salad. The very slight sweetness in this relatively low-alcohol wine actually will neutralize some of the heat of the chilies, making for a milder palate sensation. And the high acidity of a Riesling wine from a cool climate will refresh and “scrape” the heat from the palate, while matching the refreshing sweet/sour flavors of the fresh lime juice. The beauty of this pairing is that the rare beef stands out as a silky, sexy texture, but because it is a small, thinly sliced portion bathed in spice and lime, its power is ameliorated by its condiments. With the Riesling, the spicy beef becomes an earthy but delicate component of the dish, contrasting with the citrus of the lime juice and the refreshing acidity of the wine.
If we pair the same dish with a sparkling wine, all of the Riesling-Thai beef salad interactions occur, plus one big contrasting interaction. The bubbles in the wine, coupled with fruit and acidity, really cleanse the palate efficiently—cooling off the heat, matching the acidity of the lime, and creating a bit of an instant marinade for the beef, rendering it richer and smoother as a background texture to the dish.
Create a Contrast, Not a Complement
The key to pairing spicy food with wine is to create a contrasting relationship between the two flavor elements, not a complement. Fruity and/or off-dry white wines, a bubbly, or a dry to semi-dry still or sparkling rosé are the ideal choices for pairing with spicy food. Light fruit-driven reds, such as Beaujolais or Valpolicella, as well as lighter Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Zinfandel can work well with moderately spicy food, especially if you chill the wines for about a half hour before drinking to bring out their essential fruit. A robust red, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, would end up tasting bitter because of the tannins. Instead, try a Sauvignon Blanc or Vinho Verde, a fruit-driven rosé, a chilled Fleurie from the Beaujolais region of France, or a festive bubbly.
Whether you’re enjoying spicy dishes from the Americas, Asia, the Mediterranean, or beyond, here are some wines that will almost always create a slam-dunk pairing with spicy food. Experiment with these and inevitably you will find a union that will lead to a lifelong and happy marriage in the glass and on the plate.
- Riesling: Dry to semi-dry wines from the Mosel region of Germany, the Columbia Valley of Washington State, or the Finger Lakes of New York State.
- Sauvignon Blanc: New World Sauvignon Blanc, with its “fruit salad in a glass” flavors, shines in wines from Marlborough, New Zealand, as well as in wines from California, South Africa, and Chile.
- Vinho Verde: This fruit-driven, off-dry, ultra-light-bodied, highly affordable white from Minho, Portugal is the ideal foil for seriously spicy food.
- Gewürztraminer: “Gewürz” means spicy in German, a good choice to enhance the spice in a moderately spicy dish. Traditionally from Alsace, France and bone dry, this wine has off-dry versions—actually more appropriate with a heavier dose of spice—found in California and Washington State.
- Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio: Pinot Gris from Alsace might be too powerful with spicy food while the fruity, nutty Pinot Gris from Oregon is ideal. Don’t forget the easy-drinking Pinot Grigio from Northeast Italy—it’s terrific.
Other wonderful whites to consider: Viognier from the U.S.; Chenin Blanc, including Vouvray or Saumur from France’s Loire Valley as well as wines from South Africa and India; Torrontes from Argentina; Verdejo from Rueda, Spain; and Moschofilero from Mantinia, Greece.
Just about any good sparkling wine from a cool climate—the lighter and fruitier the better—will work well with heat and spice. Try Cava from Spain or Prosecco from Italy. Fine sparklers from California, Washington State, Oregon, New Mexico, and New York State, as well as Asti (white bubbly) or Brachetto d’Acqui (light red bubbly), both from Piedmont, Italy, are great and low in alcohol.
Thirst-quenching, dry- to off-dry rosés from Spain, France, Italy, California, or Australia will create another fruit-driven “sauce” for spicy dishes. The strawberry/cranberry/raspberry notes pop right out of the wine.
When it comes to reds, look for simpler wines that don’t have much more body than a rosé. That means Beaujolais, or any Gamay-based wine; Valpolicella; simple Chianti; a lighter Côtes-du-Rhône; and inexpensive examples of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Merlot.
So, when it comes to hot and spicy food, go with cool and fruity wine. Think about the perfect wine to put out the fire of the dish while highlighting background flavors and textures, and don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path in your wine choices. Forget the oaky Chardonnays and the tannic Cabernets, and instead try something new, different, and memorable. Fruit and spice living in perfect harmony—let the music play.
Certified Wine Educator Steven Kolpan is The Charmer Sunbelt Group Endowed Chair in Wine and Spirits and a professor in wine studies at the CIA. Mr. Kolpan (along with co-authors Brian Smith and Michael Weiss) is the winner of the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Wine Book of the Year, both for WineWise.