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.
What I try to do is create both a balance and a contrast between the different dishes’ flavors and textures.
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.
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:
• 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.
Curried Shrimp image courtesy of Bill Milne for Rías Baixas Wines