Tips & Tricks: What Wine Pairs With Spicy Food?

31 03 2011

There are a million and a half rules about food and wine pairing.  Some of them are good, common sense (i.e. match the body of the wine with the heaviness of the food); others are simply worn out dogma from times gone by (i.e. red with meat, white with fish).  I think there is a ton of flexibility built into putting the right bottle of wine with the right meal — there are a few clearly wrong choices in most situations (no Pinot Grigio with steak, unless you want the taste experience of drinking $23/bottle water with your T-bone) but multiple different routes to a successful food/wine match…in most cases, anyway.  When it comes to spicy foods, your options get a lot more limited.

A tricky, but tasty, pairing challenge.

The difficulty with spicy meals is that they irritate your palate and cause a burning sensation inside of your mouth, and any wines with components that do something similar will accentuate that already-borderline-unpleasant fire inside.  For example, wines with higher alcohol levels often taste “hot” because they leave a warming feeling on your tongue…not the best sensation when it’s already feeling the heat from chili powder or curry.  Wines with tons of tannin (which coat the mouth and can often feel gritty) also aren’t great choices — it’s like scraping your scorching tongue with an emery board.  Spicy foods also emphasize the natural bitterness and astringency in dry, tannic wine, which flavours make the spices in the food seem even hotter.  Since tannins and hot food aren’t good friends, that means that red wines are generally not recommended as a pairing.

More proof: when in doubt, Riesling.

On the other hand, a touch of sweetness helps soothe the palate during a spicy meal and gives your tongue a break from its walk over the coals — that’s why people guzzle mango lassis at their favourite Indian restaurant when their vindaloo gets a bit too hot.  It may be obvious to add that cooler drinks are also a balm to hotter foods.  If you add all this up, the ideal wine for your spicy Thai curry or your lamb korma will be (1) low in alcohol, (2) low in tannin, (3) slightly sweet and (4) served cold.  The textbook style of wine that matches all 4 of these criteria is German Riesling, especially those at the Spätlese (or even Auslese) ripeness level, since these will be more than likely to have at least a touch of residual sugar in them.  However, lest you think this is simply a Riesling fan blog (which I neither confirm nor deny), another varietal that would work is Chenin Blanc, especially from the Vouvray or Savennieres regions in the Loire Valley, France.  For spicy pairing purposes, you’re probably best to avoid the Chenins whose labels say “Sec” (dry) and go for a “Demi-Sec” (off-dry, i.e. slightly sweet) or even “Moelleux” (sweet) version.  Some people swear by Gewurztraminer wines with spicy foods, because these wines tend to have exotic fruit flavours that match well with the cuisine, but they also usually have very high alcohol levels for white wines, which can make them risky unless they’re served very cold (which plays down the effect of the alcohol) or your palate welcomes the extra heat.

Strangely, wine lists in Calgary’s Thai, Indian and other hot-cuisine restaurants generally appear not to consider these principles when setting their wine lists (which for the most part employ the tried-and-true “two reds, two whites” approach).  There are, however, a few notable exceptions:  Mango Shiva (on Stephen Ave. and 2nd St SW) has a strong selection of slightly sweet whites, including Mosel Rieslings (natch), multiple Gewurzes and a few semi-sweet big-selling US white blends like Conundrum and Evolution.  Meanwhile, Thai Sa On (on 10th Ave. and 4th St. SW) has the most absurdly, ludicrously amazing selection of wine that a modest little Thai restaurant has ever seen.  If you haven’t been, check it out — you really have to see it to believe it.  Petrus with your coconut rice?  No problem!  Though for pairing purposes I’d still opt for a good Riesling.

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