Wines that Go Well with Spice and Heat

WinesThere is a general perception that spicy foods are difficult to pair with wines, but this is not completely true. While it may require more effort to find the right wine for foods that have more than their share of heat and flavor, there are wines that will wash the palate pleasantly and provide just the right refreshing contrast.

Why Wines Can Work with Spice

Few people bother to look for the right wine when they serve spicy foods, and most hosts will bring out the beer for their guests. Actually, there are several reasons why wine can be paired very appropriately with foods that pack a lot of heat.

Wine, particularly those that are fruity and sweet, can neutralize the heat in spicy foods. This allows the other flavors in a dish to become more distinguishable. The acidity of wine can also allow the different flavors of a dish to mellow and harmonize.

Matching the Spice and the Wine

Indian and Middle Eastern dishes are usually prepared with an abundance of cumin, fennel, cardamom, and coriander. In Eating Well’s Pairing Wines with Spicy Foods, Andrea Robinson says that the strong flavors of these spices will find a healthy balance in Syrah which are generally medium to full-bodied with mint and pepper notes.

Syrah, more popularly referred to as Shiraz in Australia, will be compatible with the multi-layered structure of spicy Middle Eastern dishes. It will also blend well with the chickpeas, potatoes, or lentils that are standard fare in this part of the world.

Robinson says, for Mexican and Southwestern dishes, Sauvignon Blanc  will be excellent with the region’s  chile- and lime-infused flavors. “The herbal, tangy qualities of Sauvignon Blanc are tailor-made to harmonize with the cilantro and lime notes in Tex-Mex and Southwestern cuisine. New Zealand’s Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($11) regularly stands up to wines three times the price in my blind tastings. If there is meat in the dish, choose a wine labeled Fumé Blanc, which indicates a style of Sauvignon Blanc that has been barrel-fermented and -aged, and may have a bit of the Semillon grape blended in. The barrel treatment and the touch of Semillon give the wine extra body to stand up to meat. You cannot do better than Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2005 ($18)…

“Match Riesling with the sweet-hot flavors of Thai and Chinese fare and coconut-milk curries. The touch of sweetness in a Riesling tones down chile heat while harmonizing with sweeter sauces, such as sweet-and-sour or coconut milk-based sauces. And Riesling’s lower alcohol content gives your tongue refreshment and relief; higher-alcohol wines like Chardonnay tend to fan any spicy flames on your tongue. Look for Clean Slate Riesling 2006 from Germany’s Mosel region ($11)…”

In the article, Wine with spicy Food posted in Wine Folly, Madeline Puckette states with conviction that “an ice-cold, low-alcohol, sweet white wine is best for spicy food because the cold helps to quench the thirst that comes from the spices, and the sweetness helps coat the diner’s tongue. A low-alcohol wine allows a diner to drink as much wine as needed to provide relief while eating. To fill the bill, she specifically mentions  “Bex Riesling, Germany Saracco Moscato d’Asti, Italy and S.A. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett Riesling, Germany”.

Her one negative and somewhat humorous advice about wine options to match spicy foods is this: “I tested a high-alcohol sweet red wine, Sandeman Port, with spicy food as well as a glass of Bourbon. I advise that this is a horrible idea. Don’t do it!” The same goes for Port and Bourbon – good wines, but not the kind that will soothe the burn that comes from hot, hot, hot food.

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