How to Match Wine with Spicy Food

Story by Sasha Chapman

Imagine you have a friend you’d like to set up on a blind date. You scroll through the list of possibilities: do you choose Jacob, the brash Australian who is always the life of the party, and just as high spirited as she is, or the sweet and soft-spoken Teuton named Carl on the theory that opposites attract? In the end, she hooks up with Leon, steely and acid-tongued from Alsace. You shrug your shoulders; it seems to work. And there you have the basics of pairing wine with spicy food. There are no perfect matches, but there are plenty of really good ones.

Dish duty

Consider first the flavours of the dishes you are serving: Do they have the fruity heat of jalapeno or Thai peppers (chilies, after all, are a kind of fruit) or the smoky spice of chipotle and pasilla? Is the sauce light and delicate with coconut milk or as dark and complex as a Mexican mole? And is it tangy with lime (like a Thai green mango salad or a ceviche from Veracruz) or unctuous and rich with ghee? Those factors, as much as how the dish scores on the culinary world’s Scoville heat scale, will play a role in the success or failure of the match.

Sugar and spice

“Sweet is not always the answer,” says Derek Valleau, a trained sommelier and co-owner of the Amaya Indian Room in Toronto, possibly the only Indian restaurant in Canada owned by two sommeliers. (The other owner is Hemant Bhagwani.) Though there is a widely held belief that sweeter, lower alcohol wines such as German rieslings and gewurztraminers are the best matches for spice, they are easily overpowered. Wines that are subtle and thin scare as easily as a wallflower at her first dance. Valleau prefers fuller-bodied whites with Amaya’s coconut curries; his go-to white for spice is gruner veltliner, a rounder white-peppered Austrian varietal that has been on the menu since the restaurant first opened four years ago.

Body building

Gruner veltliner (it’s slang is Gru-vee) is appearing on more and more restaurant menus (it’s what the white Manhattanites order when they want to appear in-the-know), it’s still a relatively obscure varietal at the liquor store. Chablis―a full-bodied chardonnay without any of the oak you find in the New World versions―works just as well with chicken and fish curries. Sauvignon blancs can stand up to the tangy lime of a spicy ceviche from Veracruz or a green mango salad from Thailand. The varietals popular in Alsace such as dry rieslings, floral gewurztraminers and rounded pinot gris, work particularly well with spicy food, whether the grapes were grown in Alsace or whether they were grown here in Canada. The Noble Blend, made by Joie Farms in the Okanagan, British Columbia, takes an old Alsace formula―blending aromatic riesling with several other fuller-bodied grapes―and makes it deliciously Canadian. Conundrum, a blend of Californian white varieties also works well with spice.

Cheap and cheerful

Good-value sparklers, such as mid-range cavas from Spain, offer the same “tactile advantage” as beer, as Mexican cooking guru Rick Bayless once wrote. And they will refresh your palate between bites just as well as a champagne for a third of the price. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on a bottle of wine for a spice feast; in fact, please don’t. The ethereal pleasures of a wonderful old Burgundy will shrink like a violet when confronted with Thailand’s red curries; instead, offer guests a lighter, fruitier New World pinot noir.

Juicy fruit

A friend of mine once called Australian shiraz “the party-in-my-mouth” wine. Juicy and full of fruit, this wine is a crowd-pleaser that gets along with nearly everybody and everything; it works well with spice, so long as it’s not very oaky. Other fruity reds worth trying are California zinfandels and syrahs, which have the berry-fruit intensity and spiciness to stand up to bold, fiery flavours.

No oaking, please

Spice is an amplifier: it makes oaky whites (such as a California chardonnay) taste even more, well, oaky. Tannic reds (such as a younger Cabernet Sauvignon) can seem unpleasantly tannic with spicy fare, and high-alcohol wines (such as an Amarone) taste even more hot and alcoholic. That said, there are exceptions, because of course you’re not just matching the wine to the spice, but also to the other flavours and textures in a dish. Some of those deliciously earthy, leathery reds from Italy and Spain can pair nicely with the rich smoky flavour of a Oaxacan mole.

This content is from Winefox, a website dedicated to taking the snobbery out of wine. Head over to winefox.ca to learn more about wine pairings, tours and updates on the latest trends and vintages.

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