Wine and spicy food

Can that chilli heat ever be matched successfully with wine?
Wine and Curry

Room-temperature red wine with meat and chilled white wine with fish. That's all there is to food and wine matching, n'est-ce pas? Well, errm, no actually – there's a little bit more to it, which even includes some science! Personal preferences are, of course, paramount to the concept of matching culinary creations to particular wines, but scientific reasoning can help us all into NOT making the wrong choices. In an article I wrote last year, I described this further, but here I want to do something different.

Palates can develop and change, often guided by population changes and new cultural influences. Restaurant and supermarket food, made with an assortment of spices and often embellished by chilli heat is now commonplace. However, there are many different kinds of spice and each one gives its own aroma, flavour and overall character to a dish. Therefore, choosing a wine to match these dishes depends on the particular spices used. In this article, I will be exploring some of these tricky pairings.

I've lost count of the number of times I've had a night out with friends, ending the evening with a curry and … LAGER! Some lagers can be successful accompaniments (many Bavarian beers can work really well, for example, but how many restaurants stock them?), others are just plainly uninspiring and the "IPA goes with curry" mantra is a gross oversimplification, as curry can destroy many of the more delicate flavours of hops. But if we want to drink wine instead of beer, then what works well?

Wine and Curry

Matching big, flavour-packed foods with big, flavour-packed wines is well-known advice, along with the 'tannins are good for cleansing the palate' argument. However, spicy food offers different challenges. Firstly, heavily-oaked wines should be avoided, as these can clash badly with spices, such as coriander and cumin, leaving a bitter aftertaste. But here's some good news for red wine lovers! You're usually better off spending less money and buying an inexpensive option, rather than choosing a lush, complex wine from Bordeaux, for example. The reason is that the many renowned red wine styles tend to have high levels of tannins, which are mouth drying, can mask any refreshing acidity and, therefore, do not match well with spicy food. Also, higher alcohol wines are not a good idea, as they accentuate the chilli heat from the food. Consequently, lighter-bodied, softer red wines with lower tannins and alcohol offer much better pairings, including Beaujolais and some Zinfandels.

Wine and Curry

Carmenère is a highly versatile red grape variety, originally from Bordeaux, but which has been cultivated with huge success in Chile and often blended there with Cabernet Sauvignon. This grape is frequently marketed as a good pairing for curry, due to its aromatic and velvety fruitiness, characterised by ripe and spicy dark fruit with black pepper, a little earthiness and soft, relatively sweet tannins which help cool down the spicy heat. Furthermore, it can be oaked (but not too heavily) to give smoky vanilla notes, particularly good with Tandoori dishes, or unoaked to enhance the fragrant food spices, like cardamom. An NYIWC 2013 Bronze medal winner, PKNT Carmenère 2012 is intensely aromatic, with ripe, juicy black cherry and spice notes and a silky smooth finish with subtle overtones of vanilla and smoke. Made from 85% Carmenère and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, with 60% of the blend aged in US and French oak, this wine would go particularly well with the chilli heat from many Indian dishes, particularly meat cooked in a Tandoor oven with its char-grilled, smoky, spicy flavours.

Alternatively, fresh, crisp and aromatic white wines with thirst-quenching, high acidity and minerality can be particularly good matches for lighter food flavoured with lemongrass, ginger, cardamom or other aromatic spices. As well as helping to bring out the spice notes, they can cut through fat and refresh the palate. There are many grapes that fit the bill, including Torrontes, Viognier, Muscat and others. Indeed, whether still or sparkling, dry or sweet, the Muscat grape can pair successfully with spicy dishes. Another NYIWC 2013 Bronze medal winner, Astoria Sparkling Moscato from Piedmont in North-West Italy, is delicately floral and sweet, with crisp and fresh stone fruit flavours plus gentle herbal notes. Since sweetness tends to cool down chilli heat and lower alcohol avoids intensifying it, this wine at around 7% ABV, would fit the bill beautifully.

One wine that stood out for me at a tasting last year was Sula Vineyards Dindori Viognier 2012 from India. This delightful wine showed good body and richnesss, while retaining a fruit-driven freshness on the nose and palate, with notes of apricot kernel, well-balanced acidity and some minerality too. It would go perfectly with aromatic and/or creamy spicy food, especially coconut-based Keralan dishes and is available in the UK from Hallgarten and Novum Wines.

Gewürtztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc are grape varieties that also lend themselves well to spicy food, particularly Indian, Chinese or Thai. For example, New York's One Woman Gewurztraminer 2011, also a NYIWC 2013 Bronze medal winner, is dry and floral with perfumed notes of lychee, honey, lavender and a touch of pepper on the finish. This could be a good match for many Chinese dishes. Giesen Brothers Sauvignon Blanc 2011, a Silver medal winner in the NYIWC 2013, is aromatic and fresh with notes of tropical fruit, elderflower, cut grass and herbs and a clean mineral finish. This elegant and intensely fruity Marlborough wine would complement many of the delicate, sweet and sour flavours of Thai cuisine.

So there are many options – red and white wine – for our spicy food, but hold on! I haven't mentioned rosé yet and this category should definitely not be overlooked as many of these wines tick all the boxes. DFJ Vinhos is the NYIWC 2013 'Lisboa Winery of the Year' and makes a diverse range of wine styles, including several rosés. Here are three that could be good matches for spicy food, particularly Indian, Chinese and Thai. Made from a blend of five grape varieties and created to be "the definitive wine match for spicy food", Pink Elephant 2012 is a refreshing, crisp and intensely fruity off-dry rosé with red berry notes. Casa do Lago Touriga Nacional Rosado 2012 is dry with notes of ripe red summer fruit and apples, good acidity and a minimal touch of tannin. Portada Rosé Medium Sweet 2012, a blend of four grape varieties, is aromatic and well-rounded with refreshing notes of apples and strawberries.

Finally, a versatile red wine that is best served lightly chilled and would go particularly well with both spicy food and also fish in tomato sauce, another difficult pairing. Feudo di Santa Teresa's organic Frappato 2012 from Sicily is beautifully aromatic and full of juicy berry fruit, tangy acidity and soft tannins. This is available in the UK from Vintage Roots, a 25-year old company committed to promoting organic and biodynamic wines at affordable prices.

This article is also available on The Alcohol Professor website.