Some Thoughts on Pairing Wines with Hot or Spicy Foods

Any wine enthusiast will tell you that pairing wine with hot or spicy foods is no easy task because it involves striking a delicate balance between competing factors. Unlike rich foods that require acidity to cut through the fats, spicy foods or dishes with some heat require you to focus on more than just the PH of the wine.

These kinds of foods often call for wines with specific characteristics such as low alcohol, fruity flavors and/or high acidity to balance the heat and spiciness of the food. And for red wines it makes sense to avoid those with high alcohol and tannins while for white wines you should specifically look for those with high acidity and/or a touch of sweetness.

Errors in judgement can make the flavors clash and render the palate unbearable. It is understandable that the complexity of wine pairing is what pushes some people Sidewalk spice market in Indiato opt out entirely and simply go for the old standby, a bottle of cold beer instead of a glass of wine. 

However, by following some basic rules of thumb it’s possible to enjoy foods with some heat to them along with a glass, maybe two, of wine. By following some simple rules for choice of wines you can ensure that you and your guests will enjoy both the wines as well as every bite of those cumin-pepper ribs or spicy Indian curry.

White Wines with a Hint of Sweetness

One of the main types of wine that never goes wrong with spicy foods is a white wine with a touch of sweetness. Rieslings are a good choice in this regard because their light-bodied and fruity nature makes them perfect with spicy foods. Since Rieslings vary markedly from dry to off-dry (some residual sweetness) to dessert-style sweet, it’s best to go with something in the middle i.e., a Riesling with just a touch of sweetness to it. The residual sugar balances the heat and spicy components and enhances the different flavors in the dish. It should be served chilled.

A “Cahiers” Riesling from the Brooks winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley would be a good choice. It’s off-dry, delicate sweetness and ripe fruit-driven flavors provide a good contrast to dishes marked with some heat or spice to them.

A Moscato d’Asti from northern Italy is another good choice for pairing with foods that have some heat or spice to them. These wines have low alcohol – typically 5 to 7 percent abv - and a touch of sweetness. In this regard, a good choice is Michele Chiarlo’s “Nivole” Moscato d'Asti.  It is a sweet wine that provides a balance to the heat of the food with its lasting taste. Made with the white Moscato grapes, it is a wine worth having by your side when enjoying a meal flavored with a little spice or heat.

Fruity White Wines with Aromatic Intensity

Spicy dishes like to be paired with aromatic and sweet wines and that is exactly what makes Gewürztraminer or Viognier wines a great choice. Although these wines Bowl of stir-fried vegetables with cod fish.typically do not have as much acidity, as say, a Riesling, they do have good fruit flavors and incredible herbal aromas and flavors that make them perfect partners with most traditional spicy foods from Asia, North Africa, India and Latin America. 

Elena Walch’s Gewurztraminer from Italy’s Alto Adige region is loaded with aromatic fruit and spice aromas and a fresh and spicy finish that makes it a good match for hot or spicy dishes.

Viognier is well-known for producing wines with distinct floral aromas, smooth white fruit flavors and a zesty finish. While the world’s most famous and coveted Viognier wines comes from an appellation in France’s Rhone Valley, Viognier is grown around the world including Australia as well as various areas of the U.S. Yalumba’s “Y Series” Viognier from Australia uses indigenous yeasts to create layers of complex flavors while Horton Vineyards in Virginia produces a highly-regarded, award-winning Viognier. Both wines are good companions for dishes with some heat or spice.

Lean-Bodied, Fruit-Forward Reds

Perhaps in response to market fatigue with big-bodied, high-alcohol red wines, the popularity of elegant and complex lean-bodied reds has increased in recent years. Lean-bodied reds such as Pinot Noir also pair with hot or spicy foods. Their lean structure, low tannins and exuberant fruit flavors tend to harmonize well with spicy foods. As an example, the lean body, dried strawberry flavor and fine finish of Domaine Loubeja's Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a good choice to accompany traditional Indian curry dishes.

Other appropriate wine choices abound. A Louis Jadot Beaujolais from France is a juicy, fruit-forward Gamay-based wine that pairs well with a variety of spicy dishes as does a modern-style Lambrusco wine such as the “Nicchia” Lambrusco Amabile from the Cantina di Sorbara in the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy. It’s low alcohol, vibrant acidity and effervescent sweetness makes it an ideal companion for hot or spicy dishes.

Young Red Wines with Moderate-to-Low Alcohol and High Acidity

Bold and fruity red wines can also pair well with certain hot and/or spicy dishes. But look for those with moderate-to-low alcohol and high acidity. High alcohol wines accentuate the heat inherent in spicy foods and deliver a bitter, astringent note that will overwhelm the dish’s flavors. Although it may sound counter-intuitive, high acidity in wines will mitigate the heat and spices and enhance the underlying flavors of the dishes.

Among my favorites in this category is Barbera from northern Italy. Barbera wines are typically marked with high acidity, low tannins and moderate alcohol and therefore are among the most food-friendly of all wines. In this regard, Fontanafredda’s “Briccotondo” Barbera with its tart cherry and plum flavors and low tannins is a good choice for most spicy dishes as is Mauro Veglio’s Barbera d’Alba with its crisp acidity and bright fruit flavors.

Off-dry Sparkling Wines

No discussion of pairing wines with spicy foods would be complete without introducing Champagne and other sparkling wines into the conversation. With their fragrant acidity and texture and rich layers of flavors, Champagne and other sparkling wines are incredibly versatile and provide a delightful balance to both the flavors and textures of spicy dishes.

Champagnes are elegant, very fashionable and widely available. They also tend to be expensive. Not to worry though, because there are some very good, less expensive bubbly options available.

Two of my favorite inexpensive sparkling wine options include Prosecco from northern Italy and Cava from north-eastern Spain, especially the off-dry ones with sprightly acidity and a subtle touch of sweetness. For example, Albino Armani's "1607" Prosecco NV from Italy’s hilly Friuli region has tingly acidity and just a hint of sweetness and goes well with a wide range of spicy dishes.

Top-notch Cava is widely available for under $20.  Segura Viudas’s Brut Reserva Cava, for example, sells for $10 or less and has a creamy elegance, citrus fruit and apple flavors and zippy acidity that also make it a fitting companion for hot or spicy foods.

If you want to crank it up a notch in both quality and price but still without breaking the bank, you should consider sparkling wines from the Trento area in northern Italy. For example, the Trentodoc Brut Millesimato from the Altemasi winery is made in the traditional manner and has refined bubbles, fruity citrus and peach notes and, with 7 grams of residual sugar per liter, just a hint of sweetness. It is an ideal companion to a wide range of spicy foods and, at approximately $30 a bottle, it’s an affordable luxury.

So, wine can be an ideal companion to a wide variety of spicy foods. It’s a matter of balancing competing aromas and flavors and I hope this brief overview gives you enough ideas on how to best enjoy both wine and spicy food.

For other articles on food and wine see Food and italian Wine

©Richard Marcis
Updated: November 11, 2022


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