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October 18, 2009

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Wines for drinking with spicy food if you like it hot

DO you have a spicy tooth or a craving for the scintillating spicy dishes of the Sichuan, Hunan, Thai or Korean cuisines? The topic of pairing wines with spicy foods always creates some controversy. On one hand you have some "old-school" wine connoisseurs, including some of the most famous contemporary Western wine critics who insist wine is too delicate for spicy foods. They suggest a beer or may suggest a riesling or gewurztraminer wine. I believe this to be a "cop-out" and an outdated opinion by many who know little of Asian cuisines and spices.

So what are lovers of spicy foods to do? First, we must realize that many of today's modern food and wine pairing rules were made with traditionally styled French wines like Bordeaux and Burgundy in mind. While these comprise some of the finest wines in the world, they are not the most flexible in food pairing and certainly not the most appropriate for spicy foods.

However, there are several wines from Italy, Spain and the New World that make lovely companions to spicy foods. In general, qualities in wines that are bad for spicy foods are high or aggressive alcohol, bubbles, oakiness and tannins that all tend to accentuate the spiciness or numbness of foods. Wine qualities that are good for spicy foods include moderate alcohol, freshness or acidity, sweetness and fruitiness that all tend to lessen the sensations of spiciness and numbness in the mouth, thereby soothing the palate. Following are simple rules for matching wines with moderately and very spicy Asian foods.

Moderately spicy dishes

Unoaked, Dry Whites -- are good with slightly or medium spicy seafood and white meat dishes such as Thai-style deep-fried fish in curry sauce and Hunan chicken wings with dried chillies. Spicy Asian dishes are often somewhat greasy and these clean dry white wines will also cut through the grease leaving the mouth clean. Among the best dry whites for spicy dishes are young sauvignon blanc or pinot gris/pinot grigio whites that combine good acidity, fruitiness and moderate alcohol. Try the friendly California Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Sauvignon Blanc 2005, fruity and fragrant Attems Collio Pinot Grigio DOC 2005 or balanced French Domaine Walter et Fils Pinot Gris Cuvee Speciale 2007.

Fruity, Low Tannin Reds -- can be lovely partners to moderately spicy meat dishes and even can be paired with some spicy fish dishes like Sichuan seabass with chilli peppers and garlic. The rule here is to stay away from tannins, in other words Bordeaux and other structured cabernet sauvignon wines. Instead try fruity reds with soft tannins like a Spanish Monestrell or Sicilian Nero d'Avola. The fruitiness of these wines complements the spiciness and their strong earthy qualities are not overwhelmed or compromised by the spiciness. Some suggestions are the fruity Spanish wine from Jumilla, the Casa de la Ermita Dulce Monastrell 2006 or equally fruity and hearty Sicilian Caleo Nero D'Avola Sicilia I.G.T.

Very spicy dishes

Semi Sweet Riesling & Gewurztraminer -- Although I try my best to disagree with the traditionalist school, I must admit they are right that quality German riesling and gewurztraminer wines go well with many spicy foods including Sichuan and Hunan dishes with liberal amounts of chillies. The low alcohol in these wines and their sweetness and fruitiness act as palate soothers, effectively mitigating the spiciness of chilli peppers and garlic as well as pacifying the numbness caused by Sichuan peppercorns. Wines like this available in Shanghai include the sweet and fruity Dom Zind-Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Goldert Grand Cru 2004 and the Peter Lehmann Eden Valley Riesling 2004, an Australian wine that's not very sweet but quite fruity.

Semi Sweet Sherry -- When facing the hottest of dishes, replete with fiery chillies and numbing peppercorns, a slightly sweet medium or medium dry sherry is a great partner as the mature fruitiness and sweetness of the sherry helps offset the spiciness of dishes while cleansing the palate. This style of wine is quite nice with Sichuan style "ma la" dishes including the very popular hot pot as sherry not only lessens the fire of the chilli but also sooths the numbness of the peppercorns. Great medium and medium dry sherries include "off-sweet" Williams & Humbert Dry Sack Medium Dry, or two traditional style sweet sherries, the Lustau East India Solera and Gonzalez Byass, Solera 1847 Oloroso Dulce.


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