“I’m in the mood for a Cab,” my friend announced as we sat down at my favorite Thai restaurant.
“Ooh,” I said, cringing, “I don’t know about that.”
“I thought you were all about, ‘Drink what you want with whatever you want’?” My friend retorted, smugly.
Indeed, I do offer that maxim as my parting advice to any for whom I have performed a wine tasting. In some cases, however, not just anything tastes good with whatever you are eating. One very obvious example of this is spicy food.
My friend went with his whimsy and ordered a glass of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with his green curry chicken. I reserved any comment as he followed his first bite of food with a large gulp of wine. There was no need for me to say anything. The look on his face spoke for itself. After four or five more bites and sips, he finally pushed the glass of wine away from him, glaring at me with a stank-faced scowl.
“Alright, Robert Parker,” he sniffed, “You win. What should I have ordered?”
The thing about spicy food and wine isn’t so much, “What should I drink,” but more, “What shouldn’t I drink.” The first thing to avoid is red wines that are high in tannin. Tannin is the chemical that gives you that distinctive mouth-drying effect after swallowing. While this is great for balance when you are eating something that has a high fat content, with spicy food it just makes the wine taste abrasive and smashes any lighter, more nuanced flavors.
Something else to think about when matching wines with spicy fare is alcohol content. The higher the alcohol in the wine, the hotter the finish is going to be. With the heat from the food combined with the heat from the alcohol, this is one time when two flavors don’t cancel each other out. You won’t taste anything but fire.
Wines that are heavily oaked don’t tend to fare well with hot and spicy food either. Oak is a flavor that matches well with subtler, creamier foods. With two big, bold flavors that have little in common battling it out on your taste buds, all you’re going to get is a garbled mess and a discombobulated palate.
That being said, there are some easy go-tos to remember if you’re stuck making the big vino decision for the table. For my friend’s Thai quandary, I would have recommended a Gerwurztraminer. This grape has its roots in Germany and the Alsace region of France, but is now being grown everywhere. Usually fermented leaving a touch of sweetness, this grape produces wines with complex floral and lychee notes, accenting the complex flavors of Thai cooking perfectly. The
2008 Chateau St. Michelle Gewurztraminer ($7.97 @ PJ Wine, 4898 Broadway betw. 204th and 207th streets, 212-567-5500) from Columbia Valley, Washington is a great example of this.
American Mexican food tends to go spicy, often using tomato as a base. It’s good to match that acidity with a little acidity in the wine, as well. A New Zealand Pinot Noir like the 2007 Brancott Vineyards Pinot Noir ($17.99 @ K&D Wines and Spirits, 1366 Madison Ave. betw. 95th and 96th streets, 212-289-1818) is light enough on tannin that it won’t mess with the spice, but also sports a refreshing tang that will mingle well with any tomato involved.
The Korean delicacy (and maybe my favorite condiment of all time) kimchi is tricky to match a wine with. One of the few things I’ve tried that really works is Portugal’s Vinho Verde. It is crisp, low in alcohol and slightly fizzy. It acts as the perfect foil to the intense and bold flavors of kimchi, and a great example of this light and fun wine is 2009 Casal Garcia Vinho Verde Branco ($7.99 @ Yorkshire Wines and Spirits, 1646 First Ave. at 85th Street, 212-717-5100).
My friend ended up dropping an extra ten spot on a glass of Gewurztraminer in order to salvage his meal. It’s so rare that I’m right about anything that I just sat back and enjoyed the hot and spicy victory.
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