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Pairing Wines with Spicy Foods: Solace for a Seared Palate

by Barbara Ensrud

Wondering what to drink with those fiery flavors that are all the rage these days? Lots of folks choose beer, particularly with south-of-the-border hot stuff, but also with pungent oriental dishes -- from vindaloo (India's hottest curry) to incendiary Thai, Hunan or Szechuan cuisines.

For some of us, however, beer's effervescence seems only to "stoke the fire" instead of calm it down. Any carbonated drink, in fact, can make chili peppers more explosive -- at least for an instant. When the bubbles collide with the heat the sting fairly ricochets. While some people (what I call the scorch-and-singe set) love that, others want a little relief between bites. Happily, there are lots of wines that can handle the blaze.

Dry Rosés

These are often my first pick for spicy foods. Also, blush wines with their light, cool refreshing fruit flavors and appealing hint of sweetness are a soothing balm for the fieriest dishes. They abound in the marketplace nowadays, especially as the weather warms. Some of us drink them year-round; I notice that Trader Joe's can hardly keep in stock a dry rosé from a certain cooperative in Provence (some cuvées are, admittedly, better than others!).

Numerous wine regions around the globe produce dry pinks. While some can be quite pricey--$30 or more at retail for some Provençal wines, translating to $50 and up on restaurant wine lists—one can drink very well for much less, easily $12 to $18, and $24 to $36. Some of the best and most reliable values come from Spain (rosados) and Italy (rosatos) as well as rosés from parts of southern France such as Côte du Luberon, Costières de Nîmes, Minervois, Tavel, Côtes de Provence, and the Loire Valley. Wherever the source, they are best consumed young and fresh, within a year or two of the vintage date.

France: The Loire Valley produces lovely dry rosés—Sancerre (from pinot noir), Chinon (from cabernet franc), but by far the greatest number that stream our way come from the south of France, Provence and the Rhône Valley. Names to look for:  Bernard Baudry, Colombo Cape Bleu, Domaine Houchart, Château de Campuget, Château La Canorgue, Château de Pibarnon, Château Routas ‘La Source’, Mas Sainte Berthe, Tavel Trinquevedel

Spain: Spanish rosados are dry, fresh, light to medium-bodied, great choices for warm weather, especially some of the Riojas. A few good names:  Bodegas Muga, El Coto, Ostazu, Zestos

Italy:  Italian rosatos are dry (with the exception of Lambrusco, which can be off-dry to lightly sweet, and like beer, effervescent) and tend to be more full-bodied, especially those from southern Italy, from such grapes as negroamaro. The term amaro means “bitter” and is a clue to the very dry, faintly bitter finish on wines from Apulia—not, perhaps, the most soothing for chili heat. Veneto rosatos from around Lake Garda are lighter and fruitier.

Sweeten the Burn?

A slight touch of sweetness can take the edge off the heat of spicy foods. Maybe that's why sangria (wine mixed with fruit juices, orange slices and ice) was invented. Sangria does work well with culinary pyrotechnics, especially those hot Latin chili peppers, but if wine is too sweet it interferes with the other flavors. The perception of dry or sweet, however, is strictly personal.  Off-dry versions of Gewurztaminer, Chenin Blanc and simple Riesling particularly work well with Asian spices. Recommended below are a few off-dry wines that I have found to work quite well; they have just the right touch of sweetness, balanced with crisp acidity, to be refreshing. Look for young wines, within two to three years of the vintage date.

Gewurztraminer: Hook & Ladder Early Harvest, Alexander Valley Vyds, Firestone, Gundlach-Bunchschu
Chenin Blanc:  Daniel Gehrs Le Cheniere, Dry Creek Dry Chenin Blanc, Pacific Rim
Riesling:  Bonterra, Chateau Ste. Michelle Cold Creek, Pacific Rim, Willamette Valley Vyds

Dry Whites

Some dry whites also work with spicy foods, especially spicy fish and shellfish or chicken. Chardonnay that really has the character of Chardonnay is rarely a good choice in my view, oaky ones especially. They don’t complement the food, and pronounced spicy flavors can obliterate nuances of Chardonnay and clash with richly oaked wines. Other white wines, however, can do the job quite well and include Soave, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, genuinely dry Riesling and one or two others as listed. Again, young ones are best. Prices range from $12 to $21.

Dry Creek Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma
Benziger Fume Blanc, Sonoma
Pinot Grigios from northern Italy (Alto Adige, Friuli, Tre Venezie)
Sauvion Sancerre, Loire Valley
Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling
Hogue Cellars Dry Riesling, Washington
Trefethen Dry Riesling, Napa Valley
Trimbach Riesling (3-year-old Alsace Riesling is my first pick with Indian biryanis and curries—but not chili-laced vindaloos).
Les Jamelles Marsanne Pays d’Oc
Montpellier Viognier, Monterey
Qupe Marsanne, Santa Barbara



Moderately spicy foods, such as milder meat curries, tandoori chicken and simple fajitas, can handle young, fruity red wines such as lighter Zinfandels, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and certain blends. Tannic reds and spicy foods fight each other, and the battle is not pretty for either side. The reds recommended below are light enough to be gently chilled, which makes them all the more refreshing and palate-soothing.

Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais Nouveau
Sangiovese di Romagna
Ravenswood Vintner's Reserve Zinfandel  
Saintsbury Garnet Pinot Noir

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