Wines for Hot and Spicy Foods

Do you ever wonder why so many people automatically reach for a beer to go with African, Asian, or Caribbean foods? Answer: Beer is refreshing, and does not clash with the many feisty, fiery flavors of chilies, herbs and spices that are the signature of these many and varied cuisines.

Pairing wine with hot and spicy foods can be extremely daunting, not least because of the many layers of flavors and ingredients involved, but also because most of us have had a least one bad experience where the wine paired completely overpowered or detracted from the dish. But all is not lost. By following a few simple rules, we can find an array of wines that not just work with ‘hot & spicy’ but more importantly enhance both the wine and the food.

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The prevailing flavors of these styles of cooking 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 I focus on when choosing a wine to match, and not whether the dish is based on beef, chicken, fish or vegetarian.

What I try to do is create both a balance and a contrast between the different dishes’ flavors and textures.

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Now, I am by no means an expert on any of these cuisines; however, over time I have come up with a few useful guidelines.

The wines most suited to this spectrum of flavors are wines that are medium to low in alcohol, wines that are refreshing, with crisp acidity. Alcohol tends to negatively accentuate heat, whereas crisp acidity provides an enhancing contrast to both ‘heat’ and ‘richness’, while also lifting the many layers of flavor in the dish. Just think how often we squeeze lemon juice over a finished dish to brighten the flavors.

Fruity, aromatic and off-dry whites are some of the best options, and are well-recognized natural allies at the Asian table. Sweetness from the residual sugar in off-dry wines balances the heat and spicy flavors. Similarly, fruity and aromatic whites, while dry, can give the impression of sweetness that similarly works to balance and compliment heat and spice.

Little or no oak treatment is another rule I adhere to when choosing a white wine. Heavy oak dominates and can really dumb down the flavors.

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For red wines the things to watch out for are alcohol and tannin. I find that low to medium tannin works best, as wines with a lot of tannin can accentuate bitterness, as well as overpower the dish.

Also, look for reds that are fruitier in style and, that have a good level of acidity.

So that’s the theory part. Now for the practical. What does this mean, when faced with an array of bottles on a wine store shelf? How do I know which ones have the characteristics I am looking for?

If there is no willing and able assistant on hand, here are a few pointers that I hope are useful:

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• Avoid the usual suspects such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (alcohol, tannin, way too powerful), as well as Chardonnay (oak, too powerful, lowish acidity).

• Instead seek out Riesling, especially off-dry styles from Germany or The Fingerlakes as well as dry styles.

• Other aromatic and fruity whites worth considering include Albariño from Rías Baixas in Spain, Vouvray (both dry and off-dry) from the Loire valley in France as well as the intensely aromatic Gewürztraminer and Viognier wines. While the last two are not marked by high acidity, such is their aromatic and fruity intensity that they work really well.

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• Sparkling wines, especially off-dry styles, as well as the lighter and fruitier Asti and Lambrusco styles from Italy, can provide a delightful balance to both the flavors as well as textures.

• And when it comes to red, my favorites are the Italian Barbera and Dolcetto wines as well as Zinfandel. These wines are all characterized by low to medium tannins, exuberant fruit and medium plus acidity, which provides both a contrast as well as harmony to spicy foods.

A really fun thing to do is to gather a few friends, try a number of these suggestions wines with an array of different dishes and see which pairings work best for you. It can be a really entertaining and educational gathering.

I can't wait to hear from you, on what your favorite wine (or other beverage) is with spicy foods, and why you like it.

So until next week, turn up the heat and find some good pairings for all the wonderful African, Asian and Caribbean dishes that you like.

-- Mary

Curried Shrimp image courtesy of Bill Milne for Rías Baixas Wines

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.