For many people finding the right wine to pair with spicy foods is a very real challenge. They’re sure that something as red and meaty as chili should only be paired with a red wine, and that sweet whites are commonly known as dessert wines, so they must go with desserts. They know that there are rules, but no one has ever really helped them to understand those rules, which can leave a person feeling confused and frustrated. Offer them a dish like jerked chicken, with a white meat and a red sauce, and there is a danger that they’ll throw up their hands all together and walk away from wine pairings.
Unfortunately, the logical red-to-red and white-to-white thinking that they’re employing leads many people down the wrong pairing path. Think about the last time you tried to drink something sweet with a sweet snack. Whether it was soda and a candy bar, chocolate milk and cookies, or a nice Riesling with a fancy soufflé, you were probably at least a little disappointed.
The reason for this is that sweet things generally don’t work well together. One will overpower the other, or bring out bitter or sour undertones you may never have noticed before. You may find that your dessert doesn’t taste sweet at all, while your drink tastes like nothing but sugar syrup.
On the other hand, spicy foods will compete with very dry reds, and tannin-rich wines will actually intensify rather than sooth the burn. A sweet wine will complement the heat, and a white that is higher in acidity will actually stimulate the salivary glands, helping to move the capsaicin along and allowing you to get down to the flavors of a dish.
This lightly carbonated white has a fruity taste that is almost candy-like in its sweetness. This may account for its recent surge in popularity among young American wine drinkers, and makes it an excellent match for spicy foods.
The flavor of wine can be drastically changed when food enters the equation, and a spicy meal will bring out some of the complexities hidden under the sometimes too-intense sweetness of this white. The bubbles will also actually carry away more of the capsaicin, which will make this a very effective palate cleanser. Consider trying a Black Muscat, which will be red and have more of a plummy, jammy flavor than its lighter cousin, which has more than once been compared to Life-Savers candies.
This may be the most recognizable white on the American market. Rieslings come in all shapes and sizes, from the very sweet and even lightly carbonated to the quite dry, almost cooking wine varieties. These wines range widely, but tend to have an undertone of apples and other familiar fruits, which will be accentuated by a spicy meal. Because of their familiarity, Rieslings are an excellent choice for a connoisseur looking to share a toast with a wine noob.
Another advantage of the wide range of choices in Rieslings will be the ability to choose how much or how little alcohol the wine contains. A higher level of alcohol can emphasize the spiciness of the meal, while a lower level will help to balance it out.
These German dessert wines are complex and captivating on their own, but once paired with spicy foods the many nuanced flavors of this intricate wine will be even more evident. Not only will the Gewurztraminer serve as a cool, crisp palate cleanser in between bites of heat, but the spiciness will emphasize the delicate and intricate nature of the wine.
The key is not to get stuck in the old, red meat/white meat paradigm. In reality you want to pair the wine to the sauce, and avoid making the mistake of thinking that matching them visually is the best method. Consider the flavors that should be most conspicuous in the meal and seek out a wine that will show them off rather than competing or overpowering them. Don’t be afraid to try a pairing that seems unconventional. Like most other aspects of cooking, trial and error is the best and most effective way to find winning flavor combinations and contrasts.
Kayla Stevens is a freelance writer and a dedicated wine lover. She never passes up an opportunity to share a bottle of wine with friends, and if there also happens to be food, that’s cool too. She currently writes for Midwest Brewing, which provides supplies wine making equipment for the most daring drinkers among us.