Spicy foods & wine – put out the fire or fuel the flames

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Image:  Heidi Butzine

         People are sometimes unsure which wines go best with spicy food.  I typically suggest an off-dry, sweet wine.  People are often surprised at the idea of a slightly sweet drink to go with spicy food, but it really makes sense.  An off-dry Riesling is a good choice not just for the sweetness but for its lower alcohol content as well.  Alcohol tends to increase the heat effect of spicy foods, so it is important to pick something with lower alcohol content.

            For spicy Asian food, a Gewurztraminer from Alsace is a good choice.  The fruity, aromatic wine has elements of lychees and ginger, which match well to the similar flavors in the food.  The downside to Gewurztraminer is that it is high in alcohol, so it may have a tendency to increase the heat of the spice.

            Moscati d’Asti is another choice for a cool down wine.  This sweet wine is frequently served as a dessert wine, but it can be a light and refreshing addition to a spicy meal.  Off-dry Chenin Blanc, made into Vouvray in the Loire Valley, or a varietal wine in California, is another good choice. A rosé will also complement a spicy meal well.  It is good for its lack of tannins, and its ability to be served chilled.

            The reason you don’t want to match spicy foods with a dry, full, tannic wine is because the spice in the food accentuates the bitterness of the wine.  Sometimes the wine will taste harsh and metallic, and may even increase the heat of the food.

            If you insist on drinking a red wine with your spicy food, many people have found success with slightly sweet reds that are ripe, with low tannin and low alcohol content.  Beaujolais is a good example of a wine that can be used for this purpose.  It also has the advantage of being able to be chilled.  Some of the soft and fruity California wines, such as Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, can sometimes help add that touch of necessary sweetness. And if there is a note of savory and less ‘heat’ in the dish (like a molé), then a nice full bodied and fruity Malbec may also be a great choice.

            While Riesling is probably the best choice, if the food is too spicy, a wine just won’t be able to stand up to it.  It can not turn a mouth-scorching meal into something cool and more palatable.  In that case, it might be better to avoid wine altogether, and open a cold beer.

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