Pairing wine with spicy food


Photograph: Susie Carter

Photograph: Susie Carter

In part five of our series, food writer Susie Carter takes a look at how to successfully pair wines with key ingredients. This month she tackles one of the trickiest areas: what to drink with spicy food

After the rich fare of the Christmas period, I find myself craving fresh, spicy dishes in January to wake myself back up. Chilli heat is one of the most difficult elements of a dish to pair with wine, which is why even the most committed wine lover often turns to beer to accompany a curry. However, choose carefully and there are some rewarding matches to be had.

It’s the chemical capsaicin that gives chillies their burning sensation, triggering the same nerve endings in your mouth that sense heat. These are also the receptors that pick up on the hot sensation of alcohol, so look for lower alcohol wines when accompanying spicy food to avoid heightening the burn. The capsaicin will also make any tannin in the wine seem more pronounced and astringent, which is why we shy away from reds.

Chilli heat will also decrease your perception of body, sweetness and fruitiness in a wine, so these things should be compensated for in the grape variety you choose. A medium-dry Alsatian Gewürztraminer would be a great choice to accompany spicy dishes from the Middle East and Thailand; the classic aromas of rose, cinnamon and lychees being mirrored in the food. I’d also look to Alsace when sourcing medium-dry Pinot Gris to match creamy curry sauces, or something like linguini with a crab, cream and chilli sauce.

Some of the most successful pairings occur when the wine stands in for an element that’s missing in the food – for example Sauternes adding sweetness to blue cheese’s saltiness. This makes South-East Asian dishes some of the most difficult to match, as the whole ethos behind the cuisine is finding the perfect equilibrium between the five tastes. For these ultra-balanced dishes, I look for ultra-balanced wine and for me, it’s hard to beat Riesling. Look for medium-dry styles with good acidity, low alcohol and plenty of fruit.

Crispy duck and lychee salad

Serves 4

½ Chinese crispy duck (or use 2 confit duck legs)

16 lychees, peeled, stoned and halved

½ red onion, very thinly sliced

a small bunch fresh coriander, chopped

4 – 5 mint leaves, finely shredded

For the dressing:

½ garlic clove

1 red chilli, finely chopped

1 tbsp hoisin or plum sauce

2 limes, juiced

1 – 2 tbsp Thai fish sauce

1 – 2 tbsp palm sugar (or caster sugar)

  • Roast the duck in a preheated oven at 220⁰C / gas 7 for 30 minutes or until the skin is crisp.
  • Meanwhile, make the dressing: pound the garlic and chilli with a pestle and mortar until pulped, then stir in the hoisin. Add the lime juice and half of the fish sauce and sugar, then taste and add more sweet sugar or salty fish sauce as necessary to balance the acidity of the lime.
  • When the duck is ready, shred it off the bone with two forks, then toss with the lychees, onion, herbs and dressing. Serve immediately.

My perfect pairing would be Domaine André Ostertag’s Gewürztraminer d’Epfig; a wine that’s perfectly balanced between sweetness and acidity, with enough body to cope with the rich duck and plenty of floral fruit to compliment the lychees.

Read the previous instalments in Susie’s series on food and wine matching.