I’ve said it once and I’ll say it a million more times: Drink what you like, no matter what the “rule” is. That being said, there are suggestions (I won’t call them rules) that are in place because, well, some things just go together better than others.
And some things don’t go together at all.
My friend Ben sat across from me at our favorite Thai restaurant. He went with his whim 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.
“I figured that cab wasn’t going to work well with that curry.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” he huffed.
“Drink what you like!”
“Well, I don’t like this!”
The thing about spicy food and wine isn’t so much “what should I drink?” as “what shouldn’t I drink?” The first thing to avoid is a red wine that is 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 in the food.
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. When the heat from the food combines with the heat from the alcohol, it’s 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 all that 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 tastebuds, 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 gewürztraminer. 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 Gewürztraminer ($10 at Astor Wines, 399 Lafayette St., at E. 4th St., 212-674-7500, astorwines.com) from the Columbia Valley in Washington is a great example.
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 ($21.99 at K&D Wines and Spirits, 1366 Madison Ave. betw. 95th & 96th Sts., 212-289-1818, kdwine.com) is light enough on tannin that it won’t mess with the spice, but 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 with a wine. 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 and acts as the perfect foil to the intense and bold flavors of kimchi. A great example of this light, fun wine is 2009 Casal Garcia Vinho Verde Branco ($9.99 at Yorkshire Wines and Spirits, 1646 1st Ave., at 85th St., 212-717-5100, yorkshirewines.com)
My friend ended up dropping an extra ten-spot on a glass of gewürztraminer 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.
Tags: 2007 Brancott Vineyards Pinot Noir, 2008 Chateau St. Michelle Gewürztraminer, 2009 Casal Garcia Vinho Verde Branco, Astor Wines, Dining, drink, Eat, K&D Wines and Spirits, wine, Yorkshire Wines and Spirits
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