A few styles to consider when matching wines with spicy food:
- Off-dry Riesling or rosé
- Grenache and Syrah/Shiraz blends
- California Chardonnay
- Sparkling Shiraz
- Ripe Pinot Noir with more aromatic dishes
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There is a key choice to make before you start.
Chilli thrill-seekers could meet the heat head-on with a ‘spice booster’ wine, as master sommelier Matthieu Longuère MS once phrased it in an article for Decanter.com.
Those less excited by the Scoville heat scale may want a wine that mellows out the dish, without compromising the flavour of course.
Off-dry white wines, such as Riesling, are often touted as a good match for spicy foods, because the slight sweetness can help to reduce the heat.
Bold and fruity reds, such as Grenache and Syrah / Shiraz blends, or California Chardonnay with a dose of new oak spice are both options for those seeking bolder styles to pair with curry, according to Longuère, of the Le Cordon Bleu London.
Andrés Rangel, assistant head sommelier at Indian restaurant Gymkhana in London, said off-dry aromatic wines and sparkling wines with a creamy mousse were ‘safe’ options for spicy food pairings, particularly if you want to contain the heat.
But it’s not always that simple, with such a variety of spicy dishes on offer.
‘The most effective way to match wine and spicy food is balancing weight by weight, and contrasting flavours,’ said Rangel, who recently won the Sud de France Sommelier of the Year competition.
‘For example, in Indian food, we find rich and fatty dishes, made with cream or yoghurt. So we need wines with enough body to support those dishes and at the same time ripe fruit flavours to create a pleasant contrast with the spices.’
White wines and rosé
Anne Krebiehl MW, expert contributor to Decanter Premium and wine lecturer, said, ‘For me, off-dry wines only work if there is also an element of sweetness in the spicy food.
‘[For example], there usually is palm sugar in Thai dishes along with lemongrass and mild chilli heat. Here, an off-dry, light-bodied Riesling – but not sweet – would be perfect, just to echo that nuance of sweetness.
‘Look out for the term ‘feinherb’ (off-dry) on the label and aim for anywhere between 11-13% abv.’
Fuller-bodied rosé wines can also stand up well to spice, wrote food and wine expert Fiona Beckett in an article for Decanter magazine in 2017.
‘Rosés from the New World tend to be riper and sweeter than their European counterparts, and this is not necessarily an off-putting quality when they are paired with spicy food,’ she said.
Champagne and sparkling wines
Sparkling wines can work with seafood dishes that carry just hint of heat, she added.
‘I love to drink fizz and find that a rather creamy and really mature Champagne goes well with chili-accented dishes; like soft-shell crab or squid fried in a cayenne-spiced batter.’
Krebiehl highlighted that spicy can also mean aromatic.
‘I am a big fan of Chinese five spice, with its warm redolence of clove and cinnamon. Rounder, gutsier Pinot Noirs that border on plummy fruitiness work well here, but so does sparkling Shiraz.’
Rangel suggested that it can be fun to think about matching wines to specific, strong aromas in the dish.
‘Some of the herbs and spices used [in Indian cooking], such as cardamom, ginger, pepper, clove and coriander, are present in the flavour and aromatic profile of wine, he said.
Those looking for a pairing with bolder wines could use this principle.
Referencing his recent triumph in the Sud de France competition, Rangel gave the pairing of Gymkhana’s Wild Muntjac Biryani – containing wild deer plus cardamom, turmeric, chilli, saffron, mint and coriander – with Domaine de la Grange des Pères Rouge from Languedoc-Roussillon.
The Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon blend makes for a rich full bodied wine with floral notes, spices and liquorice, he said.
Read more: How to match wine with curry