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How to Pair Wine With Spicy Food (Beyond Riesling)

How to Pair Wine With Spicy Food (Beyond Riesling)

how to pair wine with spicy food

Sommelier Beverly Crandon grew up eating Caribbean foods: crispy plates of Accra, steaming crab dumplings, and soulful bowls of chana. So when she moved through her sommelier training, she was surprised that while there are hundreds of pairings for every French dish imaginable, her culture — and a globe of flavorful foods to boot — were largely reduced to one pairing: Riesling. 

Now she’s on a mission: blow open the wine world and welcome in bright, anything-but-banal new pairings.

Start With Structure, Then Acid

“It’s slightly nerdy, but start by first focusing on the structure and weight of the wine,” she advises — you don’t want to lose the texture of a wine to strong flavor.

Acidity is also key. “High acid wines are what you want with food, full stop,” Crandon describes. Consider Grüner Veltliner with spicy fried fish: it can handle the heat, “the acidity of the Grüner gives you a riper fruit feel on the palate, which helps when you have a dish with spice.”

Embrace Oak

Crandon also eyes oak aging. “Not crazy, over-the-top aging, though.” She points out that flavorful dishes tend to lean on allspice and clove, flavors also found in oak-aged wines. “Pairing the two is just congruent — I like to pair like with like.”

Recently, she served a lamb curry alongside Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa. “The master sommelier I served it to was blown awayClove and allspice were present and balanced in both the dish and the wine, and of course, you’ve got lovely tannins working the fat of the lamb — it was a wonderful mouth experience.”

On the lighter side of reds, she’ll reach for a Cabernet Franc when working with hotter dishes. “It’s lighter, so I can chill it. Not fully cold, just a few moments in ice – the peppery notes at that temperature work well with spice.”

And Lees

Another easy sell: wine aged on the lees. “With high-flavor foods, you want that waxy, coating mouthfeel that comes from lees aging. Plus, these wines are amazing pairings because of the phenolics in the wine – they go beautifully with high-flavor dishes and can stand up against spice.” For that reason, she loves tannic Northern Italian whites and wines from Slovenia and Croatia that spend time on the skins. (And Champagne, of course.)

Skip Simplification

One of the biggest secrets of pairing wine with flavorful food? Ignore traditional conventions. Even today, sommelier certifications largely generalize pairing with spice to oversimplified suggestions. Anything with spice or bigger in flavor? Try a Riesling, or perhaps a Gewürztraminer or Sauvignon Blanc, they say — all highly aromatic, slightly spiced wines.

“The problem with that is when you’re taking a dish that’s already spiced, and you pair it with a wine with spices or an overly perfumed palate, it’s going to be way too much,” says Alice Achayo, a sommelier and wine linguist.

Other rules state that red wine shouldn’t pair with spicy food. “The reason behind that is red wine will elevate the heat,” says Achayo. “But who’s that a problem for? Largely, Westerners who can’t handle the heat.”

Or that red wine shouldn’t be served with seafood, but seafood is a broad category. What about slow-cooked and curried shrimp? A spiced tagine of snapper? The rules were put in place for a reason — tannins found in red wine will bring out metallic qualities in fish – but “not all red wine is that tannic,” points out Achayo. A softer red can sub sublimely with a higher spiced fish dish.

“As sommeliers, we tend to generalize,” she notes. Rules state that food from Asia — a massive continent consisting of 48 countries – only pairs with Riesling. “We’re oversimplifying,” says Achayo.

“I can imagine that some of these generalizations were meant to help consumers, but it also feels like the result of ignorance and lack of caring,” she notes. “All these cultures are just left to drink beer with their food.”

Going Beyond Traditional Food and Wine Pairings

Why aren’t there traditional wine pairings for global foods? “Wine was historically treated as a commodity, just as people were treated as a commodity,” says Crandon. “It’s clear wine wasn’t meant to pair with my food because wine wasn’t meant for me.”

Crandon noticed foods she grew up with weren’t considered acceptable in the world of wine. “When I was taking courses to prepare me for my certified sommelier exam,” describes Crandon. “I commented that a wine reminded me of a black cake [a wildly delicious, Caribbean rum-soaked cake]. I was told I couldn’t say that as a descriptor because it’s not recognizable.”

She wondered – “who doesn’t recognize that?”

“I’m from East Africa,” Achayo notes, “but as a sommelier, I was taught that my language is not relevant and that there were no pairings for my food. Over the years, I’ve learned to speak Western society’s language of wine.”

Standardized tasting notes largely come from European ingredients or ingredients favored by the upper class. “The language being spoken in these rooms is very euro-centric, and it’s very white-dominant,” says Crandon. “So many people I studied with had never had quince or pomelo, but we still consider it a standardized tasting note.”

Now, much of Achayo’s work surrounds wine linguistics. “I focus on highlighting food that has not been classically considered part of the wine world — call it the global majority,” she explains. “My focus is expanding the wine language to include language beyond global cuisine.” She’s working country by country, highlighting flavors and spices found in each and building out wine pairings accordingly.

Globalizing Food Pairings

Crandon, too, is focusing on educating consumers on the joys of expanding what foods we pair with wines. The next time you dig into stewed oxtail, she beckons that you try it with “a Zinfandel with ripe fruit and medium acidity.” Serving Caribbean pepper shrimp? A Vouvray flirts well with Scotch bonnet. “The residual sugar helps deal with the pepper, and the bright acidity of the grape assists in lightening the breading on the shrimp,” she notes.

A pairing you never knew you needed: salt fish bake with grower Champagne — “the acidity will kiss the salt fish, and the texture of the lees will prove beneficial when I bite into that bake,” says Crandon.

She beckons you to uncork bottles and try different things, learn what works with your favorite dishes, and experiment beyond conventions, using Crandon and Achayo’s rules as guidance. While pairing wine with flavorful food opens up a range of new experiences for drinkers, it’s also a beacon for people from cultures who haven’t traditionally been told their food is worthy of wine pairings. “I feel like we have all these people who come from wonderful diasporas that feel that their food can’t be paired with wine,” says Crandon. “They don’t get to experience the moment when you find a perfect pairing and how it can change each bite.”

For more about how to pair wine with spicy foods, subscribe to SOMM TV. In this clip from At Home | Wines and Spices, Master Sommelier Emily Wines shares some ideas for pairing with different kinds of curry.

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