Allen Balik: Wines for Spice

Allen Balik: Wines for Spice

Today, spicy flavors are all the rage in the culinary world given a never-ending variety of chilies now available in the market and a greater than ever selection from home gardens. But for wine lovers, the question of what wine to choose often represents a dilemma. All too frequently, the default choice goes to a cold beer.

That’s not necessarily a bad choice — and perhaps the best one for many very spicy dishes. Yet there are vinous options readily available for various dishes. All spicy elements carry their own “heat index,” which can be altered up or down by the amount used or the inclusion of other balancing ingredients in the recipe. While there’s no easy answer, the good news is there are lots of choices.

Various ranges of spice are found in many ethnic foods. Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Italian and Middle-Eastern cuisines all bring their own flavors as well as signature heat to dishes ranging from hors d’oeuvres to all other courses on the menu. Pairing becomes not only a question of heat but also of flavor compatibility.

In a conversation with John McClelland, Co-founder of J. McClelland Cellars in Napa Valley and a six decades veteran of the California wine industry, we explored the question, “What wine goes best with most spicy dishes?” Chilled rosé is John’s first choice because the spiciness of the dish tends to make most reds taste bitter and overwhelms most whites.

The many styles of rosé from bone dry in the traditional French fashion to slightly sweet, as many Americans prefer, lend themselves to a broad range of cuisine. But this is not necessarily true with very sweet white zinfandel (better categorized as a blush wine) that acts more as a foil to spiciness than a partner.

I agree wholeheartedly with John that rosé is a good and flexible choice for most spicy cuisine. But what are some other choices and what should we look for in determining the best wine to go with that fiery kung pao chicken, chili relleno or penne amatriciana?

As with other pairing choices, I tend to look first at the overall character of a wine to assess its potential compatibility with the dish. Alcohol itself adds heat to the palate so lower levels are better for spicy foods. Fragrant aromatics contrast the heat of the dish and tend to add a positive spin to the pairing. A touch of sweetness (off-dry) is a good choice especially for the spicier dishes. Tannin does not pair well with spice so when a red is selected lower tannic levels are recommended to avoid bitterness. And perhaps a bit of a chill to that red will brighten the pairing.

Some whites exhibiting varying degrees of aromatics such as riesling, gewürztraminer, albariño, torrantés, chenin blanc and malvasia bianca are all good choices. And many can be found at lower alcohol levels with a bit of sweetness for an off-dry finish that’s especially desirable in balancing higher levels of spice. Oak influence is not a good compliment so avoid whites like chardonnay or others displaying this characteristic.

Demi-sec (off dry) sparklers often work well. The demi-secs are preferable to dryer examples because their slight sweetness will offset the sourness created by spice amplifying the high acidity found in sparkling wines. And rosé demi-secs can present another alternative to incorporate John’s go-to favorites.

Reds are far more difficult to pair, given their bolder character because higher alcohols and tannin that tend to add a note of bitterness when combined with the heat of spice. Some possibilities are chilled Beaujolais Village and Dolcetto for milder to mid-spicy dishes of lamb, pork or beef.

Pairing wine to the spicy cuisine so popular today necessitates an added level of awareness of the flavor and heat components in both the wine and the dish. And sometimes a pairing just doesn’t work as with a hearty chili con carne. So what to do? That’s when I eagerly reach in the fridge for a cold beer!

My July 29 column—“Reminiscing at Mondavi”—generated several comments on Robert Mondavi’s contribution to the California wine industry best represented by the one below from a retired Napa Valley vintner.


Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.
He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio’s What’s Cookin’ and What’s Cookin’ on Wine programs.

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