If you’re a big fan of spicy food you could be forgiven for thinking that your choice of wines to dine with is limited. Go into any Indian restaurant and chances are the people around you are drinking either a Gewurtztraminer or the safe bet of the house beer. If you’re into Mexican or Thai, you’re probably along the same lines of thought, albeit with an even greater lean to the beer.
As with anything to do with food or wine however, things needn’t be so black and white.
Firstly, there are different characteristics of spices, such as sweet (ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon for example), savoury (pepper, cumin and cardamom) or hot (chilli peppers, mustard seed and harissa). It is true that super-hot and spicy dishes can be very difficult to match wine with, so often you’re best with a palate cleanser such as an Italian Spumante or Moscato d’Asti. They’ll work better at beer in cooling down particularly hot spices, as capsaicin, the hot element in chillies, dissolves more effectively in higher alcohol. (Please note this is NOT an excuse to drink vodka with your Rogan Josh.)
Secondly, in pairing a wine with a complex dish with a variety of flavours, its the most dominant flavours that you’re looking to identify. So, a lightly spiced dish may have more dominant herbs or other flavours, where the herbs significantly broaden your opportunities for wine matching. Herby wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah/Shiraz, so if your food is as much about the herbs as the spice you can afford to be a lot more adventurous with your choice of wine.
Finally, whilst some wines like Gewurtztraminer (literally “spiced” traminer, and pronounced “guh-verts-tra-meen-er”) are spicy by nature, more important in food-matching terms is the acidity and other factors such as alcohol and tannin levels. Many low tannin reds will work very well with lightly spiced food, such as Beaujolais, Valpolicella and Spanish Tempranillo (especially “Joven” meaning “young”).
Viognier, Austrian Gruner-Veltliner or German Riesling all possess spicy characteristics as well as the other components such as acidity and fruit sweetness to match spicy food. Similarly, red Shiraz, Grenache or Sangiovese, or the wines of the Rhône (Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Vacqueyras) have spicy attributes should your dish require something rich and full-flavoured.
So next time you’re popping your poppadoms, instead of opting for the Crouching Cobra, Big Brewery, take another look at that wine-list.