Pairing spicy food with wine is a notoriously difficult task for even the best sommeliers. There are a few rules to keep in mind when pairing wine with spice, but there is also a little room to play and bend the rules a bit. Join me as we learn the rules, and then break a few of them in search of the perfect pairing for spicy food.
How to Pair Spicy Food
by Matthew Lorman
Some of my favorite foods are often the most difficult to pair with wine. However, that is not going to stop me from trying! Throughout my travels, I have fallen in love with spicy food. Whether it is Szchechuan noodles in Chengdu, spicy Laotian sausage in Luang Prabang, or ayam rendang in Malaysia, I am always on the hunt for the spiciest food a region has to offer. Tempted by the various colors and aromas of chili peppers, spices, and seasonings in the bustling markets, I would often return home with an extra suitcase full of new culinary delights to play with. One of my favorite things to experiment with is finding the perfect wine pairing for dishes that I have tried. Pairing spicy food with wine is a notoriously difficult task for even the best sommeliers. There are a few rules to keep in mind when pairing wine with spice, but there is also a little room to play and bend the rules a bit. Join me as we learn the rules, and then break a few of them in search of the perfect pairing for spicy food.
If you have ever had a spoonful of honey after eating something spicy, you know that the sweetness helps to calm your tongue. This same principle applies to wine. Tame the flame of the Scoville scale with a sip of something sweet. Wines with a little residual sugar (sugar that has not been converted to alcohol during the fermentation process) are perfect for quenching your thirst after eating spicy food. Riesling and Gewurztraminer are wines that are popular recommendations from wine experts. They are often made in off-dry styles that complement spicy Asian foods well. Consider pairing a Riesling with Pad Thai or fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. Gewurztraminer makes a knock-out pairing with aromatic Indian curries. Exotic flavors and aromas of lychee, ginger, and rose petal allows Gewurztraminer to stand up to the complex spices found in these dishes.
Riesling and Gewurztraminer have long been a sommelier’s best friend when pairing spicy foods, however, there are plenty more styles of wine that often get neglected. Let’s consider other wines that are off-dry, like those beautiful Chenin Blancs from Vouvray, or even an off-dry rosé. These wines are crisp, unoaked, and generally lower in alcohol. All of which are important when looking to ease the discomfort caused by the burn of spicy food.
If you eat spicy food, chances are you do it because you enjoy the painful pleasure associated with capsaicin, the compound found in chilis responsible for bringing the heat. The pain receptors that sense spice are also the same ones responsible for feeling carbonation. Normally something with carbonation will make a spicy dish unbearable, however, if you have the right amount of spice, bubbles can be used as a way to leverage and enhance the level of spice in the food. Sometimes a little spice is nice. Use this pairing technique with fried foods and dishes with a fatty element to it. Think fried chicken or salami. Stick to fruitier styles of sparkling like Moscato d’Asti or Lambrusco, which often have a touch of sweetness, and are significantly less effervescent compared to other sparkling wines like Champagne. Pair Lambrusco with spicy salami, Spanish chorizo, or patatas bravas to take advantage of this phenomenon. Korean fried chicken with gochujang glaze or fried calamari with a spicy aioli is perfect with a glass of Moscato d’Asti. The acidity and effervescence cleanse the palate getting you ready for every delicious bite, while the slight sweetness manages the heat.
Chill Out with a Chilled Red
For all of those red wine drinkers out there, don’t worry. There is something for you too! Red wine might not the obvious choice to serve alongside spicy food, but stick with me here. If you put a slight chill on the red, the change in temperature is very refreshing and helps quench your thirst when a five-alarm fire is going off in your mouth. The main rule for this wine pairing to work is to keep it simple. Pick light-bodied, fruit-forward, low-alcohol reds. Avoid red wines with high levels of tannin and oak, as those will make the spicy food seem all the spicier. Lower tannin reds like Gamay, Zweigelt, Schiava, and some Pinot Noirs are great served slightly chilled. Pop them in the fridge for 15 minutes. While they are chilling, whip up a batch of chicken Biryani, Thai basil chicken, or toasted sambal cashews for the ultimate pairing.
Go Big or Go Home
Are you up for a challenge? If so, proceed with caution with this next tip. A big, bold red is not the first wine that pops into mind when thinking about spicy food and wine pairings, but let’s reconsider this for a second. The jammy and juicy flavors in some red wines, particularly a California Zinfandel, help to alleviate the burning sensation while highlighting the other complex flavors commonly found in spicy dishes. Let’s take a classic Mexican mole as an example. Mole is a sauce that usually contains lots of different herbs, spices, and flavors. Aside from the warming and smokey flavors from various dried and roasted chiles, a mole may contain chocolate, nuts, and many aromatic spices. The jamminess of the wine distracts the palate from focusing on the heat and allows the supporting ingredients to shine. Pair a Zinfandel with a sizzling platter of fajitas, a rich and smokey mole negro, or enchiladas for a fiesta in your mouth. These pairings take a little bit of effort to pull off but are well worth the thought.
Do you have a favorite wine pairing to enjoy alongside a plate of spicy food? If so, we would love to hear about it. Take to social media and tag @DCanterwines to show off your perfect pairings.