Pairing Wine with Spicy Food

So you want to eat some kimchi. Or some spicy curry. Or some Thai concoction where the spice smell is already singeing your nose hairs, before you even put it in your mouth.

And you want to pair it with wine.

Conundrum, right?

Before you reach for the beer, consider that pairing wine and spicy food is indeed possible, as well as enjoyable! You just need to keep a few things in mind.

The spicier the dish, the more careful you want to be about pairing the wine. Think about it this way: spice + alcohol = hot, hot and more hot.

Alcohol increases the perception of spice in your mouth, while spice can make the alcohol burn seem even more intense. The combination of high alcohol and hot, spicy flavors also makes the dish taste bitter and acidic. So, picking a big Napa Cab to go with your extra spicy drunken noodles is not going to be pleasurable.

So what should you pair with spicy foods?

The best wines to pair with spicy foods are off-dry (slightly sweet) white wines, and low-tannin reds, both with low alcohol and minimal oak-aging. White wines like Gruner Veltliner, Gewurtztraminer (Geh-vertz-trah-meener), Riesling, Albariño, Muscadet, Viognier, Vinho Verde or Pinot Gris all work well. If you want to pair a red, try Beaujolais Nouveau or a fun little German/Serbian grape called a Portugieser. Both are light bodied reds with a little bit of fruit to offset the heat.

Another good standby for spicy dishes is sparkling wine. Try a Spanish Cava or an Italian Prosecco. Both will give you citrus fruit and a light taste to take some heat off your tongue! (You should be able to locate most of these wines in your local wine store, but for harder to locate varietals, come see me at DCanter! Or just come see me, anyway.)

The wines you want to avoid are oak-aged whites like California Chardonnay, and big, tannic, high alcohol reds like Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, or Australian Shiraz.

Also, as my favorite Master Sommelier, Evan Goldstein notes, keep in mind that no wine is going to be able to stand up to your Texas five-pepper chili or those Thai, Indian and Korean dishes that light your mouth on fire while standing your hair on end. When you're faced with those dishes, try a yogurt based drink (if the restaurant offers it), or go ahead and stick with beer.

Wanna practice? Here are some real life wine-and-spicy-food-pairing options using some of the dishes I ate while in Korea.

Wine & spicy, grilled meats

What I'd pair here depends on the level of spice. If the meat was grilled with a little bit of sweet spice, (enough to heat your mouth, but not to make you sweat) I'd opt to pair it with a bottle of Vacqueryas. This is a French wine from the Southern Rhône. It has a little juiciness on the palate that will cut the heat, enough structure to handle the meat, and moderate alcohol that won't make turn the flame of the spice into a raging wildfire. If this was super spicy, I'd definitely stick with my Beaujolais Nouveau option - low alcohol, fruit notes, and a light body to tame the heat! For any spicy meat that's coated in a sweet sauce, off-dry Riesling it is!

Wine with spicy, fish soup

This dish was a soup of spicy, kimchi broth filled with leeks, potatoes, and a buttery white fish (I'm not sure what the fish actually was. Perk of not speaking the language). This dish screams for an off-dry white wine. Because it wasn't set-your-mouth-on-fire spicy, nor was it a heavy dish, I'd pair it with a Gruner Veltliner. The herbal edge to the Gruner would pair well with the leeks and potatoes, and the sweeter notes would bring out the sweetness in the fish. The lower alcohol would withstand the spicy broth.

Wine with kimchi and pork dumplings (mandu)

Mandu, Korean dumplings, are one of my most favorite things to eat in Korea. I love, love the juiciness of these dumplings with their melt-in-your-mouth quality. Pictured above are kimchi and pork mandu (two varieties). I'd pair these with a sparkling wine like Prosecco or Cava. Both of the wines have a little bit of citrus and fruit flavor that would pair well with the spicy sweetness of the mandu filling, and the bubbles would be a lovely offset to the starch in the mandu wrapper.

Wow, my mouth is watering.

Wine with kimchi

Yes, this can be done! Kimchi, like wine, is a fermented product. It's made out of all kinds of vegetables, but the most common kind is made out of cabbage. It's mixed with a strong, heady sauce of chili pepper flakes, garlic and ginger, and is then aged for just a few days, or as long as a few years.

So what what wine goes best with kimchi? An off-dry Gruner Veltliner, like the one I mentioned above, would pair beautifully. So would a Kabinett Riesling (Kabinett is a German identifier that means the wine has residual sugar). Last but not least, kimchi and Cava might do the trick as well. Combining cultures and countries - it's what we do here at Clos Wine.

Have other pairing questions? Are you scratching your head in the wine aisle of the super market?