Unless you’re averse to chillies, there’s a good chance there’s quite a bit of spice in your diet. But how often have you drunk wine with a vindaloo or a green curry? The idea that beer — particularly lager — is the best match for a meal with a bit of heat is so well established that many of us have never even considered the alternatives.
Part of the problem is that the countries best known for their spicy food — India, Thailand and China, for example — don’t have a culture of wine drinking, not least because hotter climates aren’t ideal for vine cultivation. Which is why many of us wouldn’t consider pairing wine with these cuisines.
But this is changing, particularly as winemaking is on the rise in some of these countries. India, for example, is producing impressive reds, such as Yaatra, a Shiraz from York Winery in the hills of Maharashtra state. It works well with meat-based curries and grills.
Spice, of course, takes many different forms. The chilli hit you get from many Thai and Mexican dishes — which tends to work with zesty whites such as Sauvignon Blanc — is quite different from the rich spice warmth you get in a rogan josh or the mild aromatics of Middle Eastern and Moroccan cooking, both of which work well with a dry rosé.
You can pair milder Indian dishes, such as a korma and butter chicken, with the same sort of wines you’d normally pair with any creamy chicken recipe — Chardonnay and Viognier, for example. But bear in mind Indian dishes are rarely served on their own — it’s the heat of the entire meal you need to judge.
Aromatic white grape varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer are the most frequently cited as ideal partners for spicy food, mainly because they tend to have a touch of residual sweetness from the fermentation process, which offsets the heat of chilli. But they go better with some dishes than with others. Gewürztraminer, for example, with its rose petal and lychee aromas, works very well with spicy Chinese and Thai dishes (especially red duck curry) but not so well with Mexican or Vietnamese ones — in the latter case the clean, herb and citrus character of many dishes can make the wine taste a little sickly.
When it comes to red wines, while some don’t work with spicy food, a surprising amount do, especially ripe, mellow reds with soft tannins. So, think Tempranillo, Shiraz or Malbec rather than tannic Cabernet Sauvignon. And while Spanish food isn’t generally thought of as spicy, many dishes contain pimentón (smoked paprika), which pairs particularly well with a young Rioja and similar Spanish reds.
You find the same sort of flavours in Tex-Mex dishes (such as chilli con carne), as well as traditional Southern barbecue food and Mexican moles. I’ve even drunk a full-bodied South African Pinotage with a fiery vindaloo — a pretty successful match. So don’t be afraid to try something new.
5 of the best wines to try
Terroir des Chateaux Forts 2016, France
From Alsace, a blend of three grape varieties — Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris — that has the sweetness to stand up to chilli heat. £16.
Black Cottage Rosé 2016, New Zealand
Fruity rosé is a good all-rounder for Indian food, as it deals well with different degrees of heat. Take this refreshing rosé to your local BYO. £12.99.
Ashwood Estate Pinot Gris 2017 Gisborne, New Zealand
A mouth-wateringly fragrant, off-dry white from Gisborne, eastern New Zealand. It’s ideal alongside a cold noodle salad or pad thai and is terrific value. £6.99.
Yaatra 2016, India
Never tried Indian wine? This lush Shiraz made by English Master of Wine Liam Stevenson, at York Winery in Maharashtra, is a great place to start. Drink with spicy kebabs. £12.95.
Felsner Moosburgerin Grüner Veltliner 2016, Austria
This versatile dry white with an appealing dash of white pepper works well with Vietnamese and milder Thai food. Try it with summer rolls. £11.99.
As featured in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food.