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Reading Between the Wines: what to drink with spicy foods

There’s something very satisfying about a nice spicy meal.

Combine spicy foods with wines that have a powerful and distinctive nose
Combine spicy foods with wines that have a powerful and distinctive nose

It has become a huge part of our culinary culture in Scotland, where the range and availability of top Asian, African, South American and Middle Eastern eateries and food stores has become the stuff of legend.

Sadly, the pursuit of spice often presents a spot of turmoil for the wine lover, as a properly hot dish can play havoc with your wine. This is why, when asked what wine might match a really hot meal, I like to joke: “beer”.

It’s true to an extent: I believe that good, light beer can be an awesome match to whatever spicy meals you are having (especially if you can source genuine imported beers that hail from the same parts as your chosen cuisine), but it’s not all doom and gloom for the wino – some wines can, and will, stand up to the fieriest of flavours. Certainly, with many Mediterranean foods, such as spiced dishes from the south of Spain or Greece, local wines will often do the job.

The difficult part of wine matching for spiced foods is that many places that have a culture of producing hot foods didn’t develop a complimentary viticulture. So while there are a number of world wines that one could recommend alongside the disparate cuisines of the world, it is up to the individual what fits best.

A little bit of internet searching will show you that this is far from an exact science amongst wine writers, and they rarely have consensus on the matter. You could have anything from the most delicate of German Rieslings to the most meaty of Australian Shiraz recommended for the same dish. Nightmare.

It helps to think just a little outside of the box with this problem, and to be brave enough to try new things. It probably helps to get an idea of what people have recommended for specific cuisines, and then to think about this in relation to your own tastes and preferences. My rule of thumb on this is to go for something with a powerful and distinctive nose, and to always make sure the wine has both high residual sugar and high acidity.

There are a number of white wine types that are frequently recommended for spiced Asian foods, and these tend to have a character that combines acidity, sweetness and spiced flavours in very interesting ways. Common suggestions include Alsatian Gewurztraminer, Dry German Rieslings, and Pinot Gris from all over the world.

These are not the kinds of wines we tend to buy masses of in the UK, so it could be worth a try doing some experimentation. ASDA’s Extra Special Alsace Gewurztraminer 2011 (£7.98) is a magic introduction to one of the more obscure grapes out there, with a lovely balance of sweet floral aromas with a nice zesty acidity that can cut through the oil of many Asian foods such as Pad Thai or a lighter spicy stir fry (pork or beef might be a bit too heavy for it).

 

For big and intense Indian curries, I often opt for fizzy wine, as the bubbles can have a very refreshing and palate cleansing effect. Champagnes, especially those in the Blanc de Noirs style, are amazing although (sadly) on my budget it has to be a special occasion for something like that!

Alternatives could be sparkling wines made in the Champagne style from Australia, England, Chile, and of course, other parts of France. Dry fizzy rosés work too – a personal favourite is the Tasmanian Jansz Rosé NV (£15, Oddbins) – it’s lovely and dry, and bursting with a surprisingly deep, fruity character that can cut through even the spiciest and most garlicky south Indian curries.

Many opt for reds to combat spice. I personally find red wines harder to match to spiced foods, with the notable exception of Mexican cuisine. For peppy beef fajitas, you could look no further than some Mexican tempranillo, but frankly, this will be pretty hard to find on the high street here.

A good alternative would be something that is intensely and darkly fruity, but with a light and not overly tannic finish – many Portuguese reds fit this bill. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Douro 2009 (£7.99) is a lovely fresh and jammy wine which has a clean dry finish that compliments Mexican style spices very nicely.

But don’t forget - you could just wimp out and opt for beer instead!

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