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Wines for When the Heat is On
By Tina Caputo
Apr 13, 2010
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With Cinco de Mayo just a couple weeks away, you’re probably wondering which wines to pair with your Mexican fiesta feast.  Okay, you’re probably not doing that.  Most likely, you’re planning to reach for the nearest cold beer or margarita. 

When it comes to spicy foods at any time of year -- whether it’s Szechuan in September or Jamaican in January -- most people tend to steer clear of wine.  And who can blame them? A perfectly delicious wine can end up tasting “hot” and alcoholic when sharing a table with fiery foods. 

But that’s not necessarily the case.  In fact, certain wines not only work with spicy foods, they enhance them.  I was reminded of this just the other night, when I made a pot of “aguadito de pollo,” a Peruvian chicken soup with lots of cilantro and Serrano chilies.  I’d sampled seven single-vineyard Pinot Noir wines from Oregon’s Erath Winery the night before (yes, it’s tough being me!), and decided to pour myself a glass with dinner. 

Knowing that high alcohol and oak are the enemies of spicy foods, I opted for the 2006 Estate Selection Pinot Noir: a bright, juicy wine with just 13.5% alcohol and plenty of acidity.  The pairing was even better than I’d expected -- the wine retained its fruitiness and balance, and the flavor and complexity of the soup was able to shine through.  Inspired by my matchmaking success, I reached for another bottle of Erath.  This time it was the 2006 Fuqua Pinot Noir, a ripe and concentrated wine with higher alcohol (14.7%) and a little less acidity.  Could this richer, bolder wine stand up to the spicy chicken soup?  Surprisingly, yes. 

If you’d asked me before that night which wines I might pair with this particular dish, I probably would have opted for an off-dry Riesling or a crisp Sauvignon Blanc.  And while either of those choices would have worked, the Pinot pairing was an unexpected delight.  (For spice-loving wine discriminators, like my dad, who’ll drink anything as long as it’s not white, this is particularly good news.)   

To find out more about the intricacies of matching wines to fiery foods, I reached out to master sommelier Evan Goldstein.  Evan is a renowned wine educator and the author of “Daring Pairings,” a new book about food-and-wine pairing.  (You can find it at Amazon.com and the usual book-selling suspects.)  His previous book, “Perfect Pairings,” did a great job not only of explaining which foods go well with which wines, but why. 

He shared these tips with me on pairing wine with spicy foods:

• Sugar mitigates heat, so off-dry wines are often a successful pairing if the heat is not overwhelming.  Think Moscato, Chenin Blanc, Riesling and -- dare I add it? -- off-dry rosés like white Zin.

• Oak and heat aren’t happy together, so avoid oaky wines.

• In general, red wines are less successful than whites, unless they are the fruity and less tannic type (often served with a slight chill): Dolcetto, Gamay, easy-drinking Grenache, softer Barbera, etc.

• Dry rosé wines are a good strategy: refreshing, unoaked and flavorful.

• Bubbly can work as a stunt double for beer.  And don’t blow your budget on Champagne -- it will be a waste.  (Its complexity may be lost in the heat.)  Instead, go for Prosecco, Cava, California sparkling or French Cremant.

• Foods that combine hot and sour characteristics are often the toughest for wine pairing.  Whites with low alcohol, no oak and bright acid are your best options. 

• High-alcohol wines (even whites) are tough with spicy food, so avoid wines like Gewurztraminer.  Scoville units ramp up the perception of alcohol, making big wines taste more like tequila!

• Avoid big reds.  Heat can make tannins seem grittier and more bitter.

These guidelines are an excellent roadmap to great pairings when the heat is on.  However, it’s important to note that when it comes to foods that are set-your-hair-on-fire or smoke-coming-out-of-your-ears hot, no wine can really do the trick.  In cases like that, it really is best to grab a beer -- or better yet, a cold glass of milk.