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How to Beat the Heat
Wines That Stand Up to Spicy Cuisine
It can be hard to find the perfect marriage between wine and spicy cuisine, where the classic rules of food and wine pairing just do not apply.
Wines for Spicy Cuisine Pairing the wrong wine with spicy cuisine can actually increase the heat.
The “grows together, goes together” rule can be disqualified, for while there are indeed vineyards in places like India, Thailand and Mexico, their wines are not readily available. The “red wine, red meat; white wine, white meat” rule is not terribly helpful either, since strongly flavored sauces relegate the meat to mere ingredient status. Consider the way many Indian menus will often offer curries like saag, tikka masala or rogan josh, and allow diners to pick their choice of lamb, chicken or shrimp. It’s the sauce that defines these dishes, not the protein. What’s more, very tannic wine will actually increase the spicy heat of certain ingredients, creating a bonfire in the mouth.

The solution? Throw out the old rules and shift your focus to the sauce and the spice. Indian cuisine often includes cardamom, cumin, coriander, turmeric, garlic and ginger in a harmonious blend. In Thailand, single spices will often dominate the palate, offering the strong flavor of lemongrass, the sourness of tamarind, the sweetness of coconut milk or the heat of chilies. In Mexico the multitude of chili varieties each have different flavor profiles. Interestingly, many of the adjectives used to describe the taste of individual chilies are also those used when describing certain types of wine.

Thankfully, choosing a wine for any of these meals is nowhere near as complicated as the food itself. Gewürztraminer and Riesling, especially from Germany or Alsace, have long been the wines of choice for spicy food, and with good reason. Both have the acid or body to cut through the heat, the sweetness (or illusion of sweetness) to stand up to it, and the perfect flavors to intermingle with those of the food. Ginger, black pepper and sandalwood naturally pair with Gewürztraminer’s spice, while cloves, chilies and coriander mingle beautifully with the peach and apricot notes of Riesling. Sauvignon Blanc, particularly from New Zealand or Sancerre, also has enough of an acidic structure to hold up even to Vindaloo, one of the spiciest dishes of India, and its grassy and tart profile is melodious with pepper, ginger, cardamom, cumin and garlic.

There is a place for red wine on these exotic tables as well. Young, fruity reds can be inspired choices. Spanish Garnacha or Rioja goes wonderfully with dishes heavy in cloves and cinnamon. Pinot Noirs, especially those of the New World, mingle nicely with tamarind, coriander, chilies and cumin. Mustard, bay and ginger balance the fruit in young Zinfandel.

Of course, the best approach to any wine-and-food marriage is to experiment and choose what you like best. Browse Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, Garnacha, Rioja, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.