Pairing wines and spicy foods

Pairing wines and spicy foods

This is a terrific piece on pairing wine with spicy dishes written by my good friend Monica Bhide …


There is certainly a noticeable trend in the past few years toward the growth of different ethnic cuisines in the U.S., and wine consumption is also trending up. Combine these and it begs a few questions, such as: What to drink with vindaloo (other than chilled beer)? What to pair with kung pao? How does one pair wine with cilantro?

To find the answers to these questions, I turned to Natalie MacLean, editor of a free, award-winning wine newsletter at

Before we dive into the conversation in detail, I spill the beans on my lack of knowledge of wine. I tell her honestly that each time I go out to eat Indian food, I always order Gewurztraminer, a wine my somewhat limited experience tells me pairs well with this food.

“Did you know that the name translates to ‘spice wine’? It’s got an aromatic intensity (full of rose petals and lychee) and stands up well to a spicy meal. It is not a wimpy wine,” she tells me.

Her advice is practical and makes so much sense: “Choose wines that are not aged in oak and don’t have large amounts of tannins. Tannins actually accentuate heat and salt. High-alcohol wines with spicy foods will make your mouth taste like it is on fire.”

Of course, while this makes perfect sense — crisp, aromatic whites are a great choice for spicy foods — I wonder if this means that reds are totally out of the picture.

“Of course not,” she says. “You can definitely try a wine that contrasts with spices, like a plush red that is ripe and fruity or some soft Italian reds. For complementary tastes, go with sweet German Riesling.”

Riesling, which can go from bone-dry to intensely sweet, provides a touch of sweetness that goes well with the hot/sour/salty/bitter flavors of spices. In fact, MacLean adds, “It is true ‘sweet meets heat’ and can soften the perceptions on heat on the palate. Riesling has great acidity and ripe fruit flavors like peaches, limes and pears. It prolongs the pleasures of the first bite of food, but then gives you a different sensation each time you sip it and go back for another bite.”

Natalie MacLean’s Top 5 Wines for Spicy Dishes

— 2007 Lingenfelder Bird Label Riesling, Germany: Always a pretty quaffer! The ultimate aperitif wine, with vibrant notes of ripe melon and pear. Terrific with cilantro-infused dishes and mild to medium curries.

— 2008 Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand: One of my favorite Sauvignon Blanc producers from New Zealand. This is a lovely white with herbal and green fruit aromas. Lively and vivacious. Closed with a screw cap, but opens with a smile. Try it with dishes seasoned with dill or basil.

— 2006 Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer Reserve, Alsace, France ($16): Classic aromas of white grapefruit, rose petal and lychee in an aromatic cloud of pleasure. Terrific aperitif, but also works with caraway and any dish with floral notes.

— 2006 Maysara Jamsheed Pinot Noir, Oregon: Lovely aromas of rose petals and violets, and underneath, fresh-turned earth and wild mushrooms. Silky texture with a lovely cherry-infused finish. Perfect for saffron, anise, fennel, oregano and rosemary.

— 2007 Cline Zinfandel, California: This full-bodied wonder delivers hedonistically rich aromas of fleshy black raspberries, brambleberries, blackberries, dark spices and pepper. The palate is richly layered, smooth and mouth-filling. Terrific with medium and more robust curries, peppers and dark spices.

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