Despite the prevailing notion that spicy foods are difficult to pair with wine, I set the stage with some fiery Asian cuisine and decided to put the theory to the test. This quest was prompted by an annual project that happens at my house. Over the summer, we dry, crush, and blend our garden's various chili peppers. The result is a potent and flavorful source of heat that I would usually quench with a good pilsner or a margarita, but rules must be broken.
I hit the wine store and selected wines that traditionally complement spicy foods. I chose fruit-forward, low alcohol wines, with low tannins and minimal oak, that are best served chilled. I invited over some friends and prepared a spread of spicy Asian-inspired dishes, serving them alongside our wine selections.
1. Riesling: This is considered the classic pairing with spicy food because of the varietal's intense fruit concentration and natural acidity, often complemented with sweetness. I chose two slightly sweet versions from Germany, where it is the country's most widely planted grape variety.
- Loosen Bros. "Dr. L" Riesling, Mosel, Germany, 2012
- St. Urbans-Hof "Bockstein" Kabinett Riesling, Mosel, Germany, 2012
2. Chenin Blanc: I selected a slightly sweet or "demi-sec" style of this wine from France's Loire Valley. Although Chenin Blanc often exhibits wild and funky aromatics, it is one of the few varietals often vinified sweet, while still maintaining great acidity.
- Chateau Moncontour Vouvray, Demi-Sec, France, 2011.
3. Pinot Gris: I chose a Pinot Gris from Alsace, France because this style most commonly contains a little residual sugar, balanced by a lush, rich mouth-feel. Acidity and sugar are not the only components that can mediate heat. Viscosity in a wine can serve the same effect.
- Cleebourg Pinot Gris, Alsace, France, 2011.
4. Moscato d'Asti: This sweet, low alcohol, lightly sparkling wine from the Piedmont region of northwest Italy is delicious on its own but often complements spicy fare. Resist easily taking a big gulp of this wine! At only five percent alcohol, this wine is supremely quaffable (if you can't beat the heat, drown it!).
- Vietti Moscato d'Asti, Piedmont, Italy, 2012.
5. Lambrusco - I chose this red wine because it is fresh, fruit-driven, and sparkling. I am not usually inclined to pair Asian cuisine with red wines, but this often overlooked gem from northern Italy demanded a try. Although this was not the favorite pairing, this wine was definitely the most talked about.
- Lini 910 "Labrusca" Lambrusco, Emilia, Italy, NV.
After tasting these wines as a group, we agreed unanimously that the Dr. L Riesling was the standout pairing. Although the St. Urbans-Hof Riesling showed better fruit concentration, it was the balance of sweetness and acidity that set the Dr. L apart when pairing with spicy Asian cuisine.
What other varietals have you paired with spicy cuisines? Have you experimented with pairing other reds? For me personally, I find Mexican cuisine particularly challenging to pair with wine. Have you had success with a particular varietal or producer?