pouring wine into glasses
In the old days of wine and food pairing, the choice of a particular wine to accompany a particular dish was fairly predictable—white wine with fish, red wine with meat. The pairings were also Eurocentric, meaning that the marriage of food and wine was largely based on the classics. French wines, or wines made from…


Pairing Wine with Spicy Foods

In the old days of wine and food pairing, the choice of a particular wine to accompany a particular dish was fairly predictable—white wine with fish, red wine with meat. The pairings were also Eurocentric, meaning that the marriage of food and wine was largely based on the classics. French wines, or wines made from the classic French grape varietals, were paired with dishes that featured the four mother sauces of Carême—Béchamel, Espagnole, Velouté, or Allemande, or their derivatives developed later by Escoffier—tomato, butter, and emulsified sauces as well as Mornay, Bordelaise, and others. In fact, back in the day, the job of a sommelier was pretty easy—taste the sauces in the kitchen and pair the wine in the dining room. Many of the wine and food matches derived from the classic European approach have withstood the test of time, and the pairings continue to make for a satisfying dining experience. But today’s chefs are creating dishes that are lighter than the classics, and, perhaps more important, are cooking in the context of a global village. No longer content to focus solely on the traditions of Carême and Escoffier, chefs are looking and traveling all over the world for inspiration. Today, we can follow their lead, catch that inspiration, and pair exciting wines with creative dishes that are either true to, or based on the spirit of, foods from the Mediterranean, Asia, Central and South America, and other places in the world with a dynamic food culture. One of the most compelling trends in today’s restaurants is the sea change in the palate of both chefs and guests. Spicy food, from a reasonably mild mole of Mexico to a fiery hot chile sauce of China, has taken center stage in many restaurants, and customers are “eating it up.” Spicy foods add visceral excitement to dining, and cry out for a beverage that will cool down the heat while simultaneously highlighting background flavors and textures. In the not-too-distant past, beer was the go-to drink for heat and spice, and most of the time a cold beer will chill the chiles without offending the rest of the dish. Clearly, beer is a simple solution. Beer is also a cultural talisman, as many spicy-food cultures— India, China, and Mexico for example—have been closely identified with producing craft beers as well as national brands. The world is changing. Practically overnight, China is one of the top-ten largest wine-producing nation in the world, and India is coming on strong. Mexico has a small but active wine industry. Still, we don’t drink much wine from these countries; at least not yet. While chefs and restaurateurs want to offer great food and wine pairings with spicy dishes, creating the ideal marriage of wine and spice can be challenging, testing the palates and creativity of chefs and wine professionals. But the results can be sublime.

Breaking the Rules

Where spicy food is concerned, traditional wine “rules” should be trashed, while attention must still be paid to some pretty simple guidelines. In general, when pairing food and wine the intensity of the food and the intensity of the wine should be nearly equivalent—meet power with power. Light dishes with light-bodied wines, red meats and rich sauces with reds. When it comes to spicy food, forget that. A Thai beef salad, redolent of fresh lime juice and chiles, is not going to work with most red wines, even though the protein in the dish is beef. Think of the rare beef as a condiment to the salad—a lovely, rich texture, but with the sweet/sour lime juice and the spice of the chiles as the “center of the plate.” Did someone say “off-dry Riesling” or “Cava,” that great affordable sparkling wine from the Catalan region of Spain? Congratulations! You “get” it. The fiery spice of chiles or other spice-laden ingredients can be a problem for many wines because of relatively high levels of alcohol in the wine, the tannins in red wines and oak-driven whites, and the relatively low acidity in popular wines from warm climates.


Every sip of wine, every bite of food amplifies both the alcohol in the wine and the heat of the dish. So unless your restaurant patron likes to sweat while eating, high alcohol does not work with spicy food.


The astringent, near-bitter elements of wine make the heat of the dish “pop,” while overwhelming every delicate nuance of flavor and texture in that dish.


Low levels of acidity don’t refresh or cleanse the palate of heat and spice, and don’t encourage another bite of food or another sip of wine. Let’s look at a semi-dry Riesling from the Mosel region of Germany, the Columbia Valley of Washington State, or the Finger Lakes Region of New York paired with that Thai beef salad. The very slight sweetness in this relatively low-alcohol wine actually will neutralize some of the heat of the chiles, making for a milder palate sensation. And the high acidity of a Riesling wine from a cool climate will refresh and “scrape” the heat from the palate, while matching the refreshing sweet/sour flavors of the fresh lime juice. The beauty of this pairing is that the rare beef stands out as a silky, sexy texture, but because it is a small, thinly sliced portion bathed in spice and lime, its power is ameliorated by its condiments. With the Riesling, the spicy beef becomes an earthy but delicate component of the dish, contrasting with the citrus of the lime juice and the refreshing acidity of the wine. If we pair the same dish with a sparkling Spanish Cava; a Prosecco from Veneto, Italy; a Sekt from Germany; an extra-dry Champagne; or a Blanc de Blancs méthode champenoise bubbly from California, all of the Riesling-Thai beef salad interactions occur, plus one big contrasting interaction. The bubbles in the wine, coupled with fruit and acidity, really cleanse the palate efficiently, cooling off the heat, matching the acidity of the lime, and creating a bit of an instant marinade for the beef, rendering it richer and smoother as a background texture to the dish.

Contrast Not Complement

The key to pairing spicy food with wine is to create a contrasting relationship between the two flavor elements, not a complement. Fruity and/or off-dry white wines, a bubbly, or a dry to semi-dry still or sparkling rosé are the ideal choices for pairing with spicy food. Light fruit-driven reds, such as Beaujolais or Valpolicella, as well as lighter Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Zinfandel can work well with moderately spicy food, especially if you chill the wines for about a half hour before serving to bring out their essential fruit. It would be a mistake to pair a spicy dish with an oaky Chardonnay. The oak and alcohol would fight the heat. A robust red, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, would end up tasting bitter because of the tannins. Instead, try a Sauvignon Blanc or unoaked Chardonnay (Chablis is the benchmark of this style), a White Zinfandel, or a chilled Fleurie from the Beaujolais region of France.

Hot Recommendations

Whether you’re serving spicy dishes from the Americas, Asia, the Mediterranean, or beyond, here are some wines that will almost always create a slam-dunk marriage with spicy food. Experiment with these and inevitably you will find a union that will lead to a lifelong and happy marriage in the glass and on the plate.

White Wines

Riesling: Dry to semi-dry wines from the Mosel region of Germany, the Columbia Valley of Washington State, or the Finger Lakes of New York State Chenin Blanc: Vouvray or Saumur from the Loire Valley of France, and varietal Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, South Africa or Nasik, India Sauvignon Blanc: New World Sauvignon Blanc with its “fruit salad in a glass” flavors, shines in wines from Marlborough, New Zealand, as well as wines from California and South Africa. Sauvignon Blanc from Chile is getting better and better and is a great and economical choice for a wine by the glass. Gewürztraminer: “Gewürz” means spicy in German, so if you want to enhance the spice in a moderately spicy dish, choose this wonderful varietal, traditionally from Alsace, France, and bone dry. Off-dry to semi-sweet versions of the wine, actually more appropriate with a heavier dose of spice, are coming from California and Washington State. Chardonnay: Avoid oak-and-alcohol bombs at all costs, but do choose unoaked, lighter examples of this wine from Chablis in Burgundy, France, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and California. Viognier: The ancestral home for this grape is the Rhône Valley of France, but those wines tend to be a bit full and perhaps too dry for spicy food. Look for simpler hazelnut and stone-fruit-laden Viognier wines from California or Australia. Vinho Verde: This fruit-driven, off-dry, ultra-light-bodied, highly affordable white from Minho, Portugal is the ideal foil for seriously spicy food. Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio: Pinot Gris from Alsace might be too powerful with spicy food while the fruity, nutty Pinot Gris from Oregon is ideal. Don’t forget the easy-drinking Pinot Grigio from Northeast Italy—it’s terrific. Torrontes: While everyone knows about Malbec from Argentina, its signature white grape is still something of a secret. Floral, perfumed, fresh-and-fruity Torrontes is a wonderful match with spicy seafood dishes. Rueda: Named for its denominación in Spain, Rueda produces only white wines, featuring the fruity, juicy Verdejo grape. That juiciness is what makes Rueda wines perfect with hot and spicy dishes. Moschofilero: Greece’s answer to Riesling, Moschofilero—from the Mantinia wine region of the island of Peloponnese—is a wine that will cool even the spiciest dishes, providing just a bit of charming fruit to the mix.

Sparkling Wines

Just about any good sparkling wine from a cool climate—the lighter and fruitier the better—will work well with heat and spice. Try Cava from Spain or Prosecco from Italy, they are both extraordinary values. Fine sparklers from California, Washington State, Oregon, New Mexico, and New York State, as well as Asti (white bubbly) or Brachetto d’Acqui (light red bubbly), both from Piedmont, Italy, are great and low in alcohol. For a real surprise, treat yourself to fruit-driven, off-dry sparkling Shiraz from Australia or a semi-sparkling, low-alcohol Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna.

Rosé/Blush Wines

Thirst-quenching, dry- to off-dry rosés from Spain, France, Italy, California, or Australia will create another fruit-driven “sauce” for spicy dishes. The strawberry/ cranberry/raspberry notes pop right out of the wine. And don’t forget the previously ubiquitous, and undeservedly maligned, semi-dry to semi-sweet White Zinfandel if you want to calm that heat down with the tastes of berries and peaches.

Red Wines

When it comes to reds, look for simpler wines that don’t have much more body than a rosé. That means Beaujolais, or any Gamay-based wine, Valpolicella, simple Chianti, a lighter Côtes-du-Rhône, and inexpensive examples of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Merlot. A good rule of thumb: if the red wine can’t take chilling in the wine fridge before service, don’t pair it with spicy food. If a bit of chill brings out its fresh, red fruits, then that’s the red you want to counter the heat.
So, when it comes to hot and spicy food, go with cool and fruity wine. Think about the perfect wine to put out the fire of the dish while highlighting background flavors and textures, and don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path in your wine choices. Forget the oaky Chardonnays and the tannic Cabernets, and instead try something new, different, and memorable. Fruit and spice living in perfect harmony.

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