3 Rules for Pairing Wines with Spicy Foods

published May 15, 2013
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(Image credit: Faith Durand/Anjali Prasertong)

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 it does not clash with the many feisty, fiery flavors of chilies, herbs, spices and sauces that are the signature of these many and varied cuisines. But don’t put away your wine glasses just yet!

The Challenge of Spicy Food

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 guidelines, we can find an array of wines that don’t just work with ‘hot & spicy,’ but actually (and more importantly) enhance both the wine and the food.

The prevailing flavors of these cuisines 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.

Depending on your preferences you can join in and compliment the spice and heat flavors by pairing with a dry, spicy wine or try to contrast with a sweeter wine.

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.

1. Avoid Oak and High Alcohol

The wines most suited to this spectrum of flavors are wines that are medium to low in alcohol, wines that are refreshing, and wines 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.

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

2. Favor Fruity, Aromatic and Off-Dry Wines

Fruity, aromatic and off-dry whites are some of the best options to consider. They are already well-recognized natural allies at the Asian table. Sweetness from the residual sugar in off-dry wines offers a contrast, and balances the heat and spicy flavors. The sweetness also serves to showcase the many different flavors in the dish.

Similarly, fruity and aromatic whites are excellent candidates. While dry, these wines can give the impression of sweetness that works to balance and compliment heat and spice.

3. Spice It Up with Crisp, Lighter Red Wines

For red wines, the things to watch out for are alcohol and tannin. I find that low to medium tannin wines work best, as wines with a lot of tannin can accentuate bitterness, as well as overpower the dish. As a rule, look for reds that are fruitier and/or spicy in style and have a good level of acidity.

So that’s the theory part and now for some practical application! 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?

Mary’s Favorite Wines for Spicy Foods

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

Avoid the usual suspects such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot (alcohol, tannin, way too powerful), as well as oaky Chardonnay (oak, too powerful and many do not have enough refreshing acidity).

If in doubt seek out Riesling, especially off-dry and medium sweet styles from Germany, the Fingerlakes, New Zealand or Washington State.

Other aromatic and fruity whites worth considering include Albariño from Rías Baixas in Spain, Grüner Veltliner from Austria, Vouvray (especially 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 with spicy foods.

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

And when it comes to red, my favorites are Barbera from Italy, Beaujolais from France as well as our very own Zinfandel. These wines are all characterized by low to medium tannins, exuberant fruit and medium plus acidity, which provides both 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.

So turn up the heat and find some good pairings for all the wonderful African, Asian, Caribbean and fusion dishes that you like!

I would love to hear from readers: what are your favorite wines to drink with spicy foods?

This post was requested by Angela! for Reader Request Week 2013.

Note: Post adapted and updated from a previous post back in 2008.