Editor’s Note: I thought I’d add a few more tips to this article below to help with those who plan to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Although there are a number of spicy entrees in Chinese cuisine, there are also many with sweet and sour nuances, so choose a wine that can handle both. My favourite is off-dry Riesling from either Canada or Germany because it has a touch of sweetness, but it also has the acidity to go with the sour element in Asian cuisine.
The wine that is bone dry is going to taste bitter with Chinese food. Low-alcohol white sparkling wines which have a little sweetness also work. For wine drinkers who prefer reds over white make sure you are choosing one that is not high in alcohol or tannins when eating spicy foods. Go with fruity low-tannin reds like Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, Gamay or even Zinfandel.
These days, North Americans are enjoying a broader universe of ethnic cuisines and wines, and so the inevitable questions arise: What to drink with vindaloo (other than chilled beer)? What to pair with kung pao? Which wine goes with cilantro?
I turned to Natalie MacLean for answers. She’s the editor of Nat Decants, a free, award-winning wine newsletter.
At the outset, I copped to my lack of knowledge about the subject she knows so well. I told 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. She told me: “Did you know that the name translates to ‘spice wine’? It’s got an aromatic intensity (full of rose petals and litchi) and stands up well to a spicy meal. It is not a wimpy wine.”
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, adds Natalie, “it is true ‘sweet meets heat’ and can soften the perception of heat on the palate. Riesling has great acidity and ripe fruit flavors like peaches, limes and pears. It prolongs the pleasure of the first bite of food, but then gives you a different sensation each time you sip it and go back for another bite!”
Sounds like my Gewurztraminer crush is coming to an end.
Natalie MacLean’s Top 5 Wines for Spicy Dishes
Lingenfelder Bird Label Riesling, Germany ($15): Always a pretty quaffer! The ultimate apéritif wine, with vibrant notes of ripe melon and pear. Terrific with cilantro-infused dishes and mild to medium curries.
Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand ($18): 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.
Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer Réserve, Alsace, France ($16): Classic aromas of white grapefruit, rose petal and litchi in an aromatic cloud of pleasure. Terrific apéritif, but also works with caraway and any dish with floral notes.
Inniskillin Pinot Noir Winemaker’s Series Montague Vineyard, V.Q.A., Four Mile Creek, Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($24): Luscious, round cherry-berry aromas. A happy, jubilant wine with medium body and satin texture. So versatile with food. Pair with: veal medallions in a red-wine sauce. Perfect for saffron, anise, fennel, oregano and rosemary.
Cline Zinfandel, California ($14): 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.
Natalie MacLean’s Top 10 Wine Matches for Herbs and Spices
1. Caraway and Marsanne
2. Cilantro and Riesling
3. Tarragon and Chardonnay
4. Curry Powder and Syrah
5. Rosemary and Merlot
6. Dill and Sauvignon Blanc
7. Saffron and Pinot Noir
8. Mint and Pinot Grigio
9. Coriander and Rioja
10. Anise/Fennel and Viognier
For wine pairings with 48 herbs and spices, visit nataliemaclean.com.