Despite the reputation of spicy foods being tough to pair with wines, there is wonderful opportunity in these bold flavors—if you know what to choose. For one, wine brings a reprieve—a contrast in temperature, texture, flavor, or all three, that primes your palate for the next fork- or chopstick-ful.
It can also complement spicy flavors in one of two ways: First, wine’s acidity boosts the layers of flavors in a dish while softening its extremes, whether of body, richness, fattiness or spicy heat. Second, wine’s fruitiness or sweetness tones down spicy heat, letting the dish’s other flavors shine.
With that in mind, here’s a little insight into how these wines can pair with a variety of spicy foods.
Pair Sauvignon Blanc with the chile- and lime-infused flavors of Mexican and Southwestern dishes. The herbal, tangy qualities of Sauvignon Blanc are tailor-made to harmonize with the cilantro and lime notes in Tex-Mex and Southwestern cuisine. New Zealand’s Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2007 ($11) regularly stands up to wines three times the price in my blind tastings. If there is meat in the dish, choose a wine labeled Fumé Blanc, which indicates a style of Sauvignon Blanc that has been barrel-fermented and -aged, and may have a bit of the Semillon grape blended in. The barrel treatment and the touch of Semillon give the wine extra body to stand up to meat. You cannot do better than Robert Mondavi Fumé Blanc 2005 ($18).
Match Riesling with the sweet-hot flavors of Thai and Chinese fare and coconut-milk curries. The touch of sweetness in a Riesling tones down chile heat while harmonizing with sweeter sauces, such as sweet-and-sour or coconut milk-based sauces. And Riesling’s lower alcohol content gives your tongue refreshment and relief; higher-alcohol wines like Chardonnay tend to fan any spicy flames on your tongue. Look for Clean Slate Riesling 2006 from Germany’s Mosel region ($11).
Uncork a bottle of Shiraz (Syrah), Grenache or Côtes du Rhône with Indian and Middle Eastern dishes that feature earthy, brown spices, like cumin, coriander, fennel or cardamom. Grenache and Syrah (a.k.a. Shiraz, which is the spelling preferred by the Aussies) are both indigenous to southern France. The spicy notes of these grapes will complement the layered spices in the dish, and the wine’s earthiness will harmonize beautifully with elements like lentils, chickpeas and potatoes that are often featured in this fare. Try Wolf Blass Yellow Label Shiraz 2005 ($13). If there is also some heat in the dish, look for rosé Côtes du Rhône, a Grenache-Syrah blend from France, such as M. Chapoutier Belleruche 2006 ($14). The spices in the dish and the wine will pair up perfectly, and the slight chill will refresh your palate against the heat.
—Andrea Robinson is one of only 15 female Master Sommeliers in the world.