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Wine: pairing spicy foods

wine_pairingPairing spicy foods with wine is one of the most notorious problems of the wine pairing world. Many people opt not even to try – instead choosing a good beer (which is, of course, a great option). The problem is that the alcohol in wine can exacerbate the spiciness of a dish, and the spice in turn can dull the flavors of the wine so that little is left to be tasted. Understanding these problems, and how spice works, can help us come up with suitable pairings, however, that can make both the wine and food better.


The active ingredient in most spice, capsaicin, activates pain receptors in the mouth, causing the ‘spicy’ reaction. The feeling is intensified by hot beverages, and reduced (temporarily) by cold beverages. Fats can help dull the effect (hence drinking milk to alleviate spice), but sugar can also reduce the burn – and that’s key to choosing appropriate pairings.


red_peppersThe most basic pairing for spicy foods is to choose a wine with a small amount of sugar, low alcohol, and spicy notes of its own (to complement the food flavors). This means primarily riesling and gewürztraminer, especially low-alcohol versions from Germany. Most Germany riesling has an alcohol content between 8% and 10%, far lower than those from the New World and France, where they generally fall between 12% and 15%. Auslese wines from Germany are the least sweet, and for those who don’t like sweet wines, they can be the best pairing option. For those who do like sugar, Eiswein or late-harvest riesling (even from Alsace and the New World) can offer an incredibly complex experience. 


Late harvest white wines are also among the most collectable of the world’s wines – with top offerings selling for thousands of dollars a bottle. If you’re comfortable trying something a bit less straight-forward, there are some other interesting pairing options depending on the kind of spice you’re using. Spice that also integrates high level of acid – Mexican cuisine, for example, with its frequent use of lime – can pair nicely with a lower-alcohol sauvignon blanc. Acidic wines using semillon in their blend can help soften the wine somewhat as well, making for even better pairing choices.


Red wine is generally overlooked when it comes to pairing with spicy food. While strong, high alcohol wines – like most zinfandel – will make the spice too strong, there are some incredible and surprising possibilities in the world of red wine. Both grenache and syrah, for example, often have spicy notes in them, and can be found in lower-alcohol forms that can support creamier spice like that found in Indian cuisine. For an added unique flair, try slightly chilling your grenache before serving it – this will help dull the alcohol even more, and give a refreshingly cool feeling to cut down the burn from the heat.


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