Even though the weather is quite warm, that does not stop my desire for spicy food. In fact, there’s a real pleasure to eating a spicy dish on a warm night. And what to drink with a spicy dish... well, the easy answer immediately comes to mind... a cold beer of course. But wait, don’t let this knee jerk reaction stand in the way of a little experimentation and the opportunity for a pleasant surprise. Try pairing wine with spicy food. It may seem daunting, but if you follow a few guidelines, pairing a wine with spicy food can enhance your experience of both the food and the wine.
The other night I put together a spicy Thai dish. Think coconut milk, fish sauce, chicken, mushrooms, cumin, turmeric, Thai chilies, and Thai basil. I also added a few Jalapeno rounds and some Berbere powder. Confession, Berbere is an Ethiopian spice featuring pure chili powder (ground dried red chilies), cardamom, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and fenugreek. I know it's not traditional, but I love the spiciness of Berbere and, for me, it is a nice addition to a Thai dish.
When choosing a wine to accompany this type of dish there are some general rules to follow:
Avoid Oak and High Alcohol
Spicy food calls out for a wine that is medium to low in alcohol, refreshing, and with crisp acidity. Alcohol tends to negatively accentuate heat, whereas crisp acidity provides an enhancing contrast to both the spiciness and richness of a dish. Oak tends to obscure the flavors of the food.
Look for Fruity, Aromatic and Off-Dry Wines
Fruity, aromatic and off-dry whites are some of the best options to consider. Sweetness contrasts the spicy flavors and also serves to showcase the layers of flavors typical of these dishes.
Try Crisp, Lighter Red Wines
For red wines, you want to avoid alcohol and tannin the things to watch out for are alcohol and tannin. Tannin can highlight bitterness in a dish. High alcohol can accentuate spiciness and, frankly, Thai food does not lend itself to sipping but rather to larger swallows. Low alcohol is your friend.
The prevailing flavors of Asian food tend toward a combination of hot, spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, and, often an added richness from the incorporation of butter or dairy ingredients. These are the aspects to focus on when choosing a wine to match, and not whether the dish is based on beef, chicken, fish or vegetarian. Depending on your preferences you can compliment the spice and heat flavors by pairing the dish with a dry, spicy wine or contrast with a sweeter wine. These wines provide a great combination with the spice mediated by a slight sweetness.
Your initial reaction may be to shy away from a sweeter wine. Doing so, however, will steer you away from a consensus favorite for this type of dish – Riesling. Resist the impulse and pair spicy Thai food with Riesling and you won’t be sorry. Although not all Riesling is sweet, when you eat something spicy and drink something with residual sugar, the sugar goes to the background and the fruit comes forward. Riesling is perfect with yogurt based curries because it is effective at soothing the spicy burn from very hot or spicy foods. You can also couple this approach with a wine that also features high acid grapes such as such as Chenin Blanc and you will have a wine that moderates the spice while also cutting through the fat of the dish.
Another somewhat surprising suggestion is Champagne. Champagne’s crisp carbonation helps to clean your palate of oil, spice, and fat. It's versatile enough to pair with meats like duck, lamb, and yet light enough to balance seafood really well.
Other aromatic and fruity white wines worth considering include Albarino , Vouvray (especially off-dry) as well as aromatic Viognier wines.
If you’re in the mood to try a red wine with a spicy dish you will want to avoid Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot with their typically higher alcohol and tannins and look to medium-full red wines. A rosé, Pinot Noir, or Gamay Noir are worth considering. A low tannin Zinfandel is another option.
With all these wine possibilities and the opportunity to try something that enhances both your food and wine, it's worth stopping for a moment when you reach for the usual beer and think about trying something different.