by Pamela Govinda
Contrary to belief, an ice-cold beer isn’t the only refresher for spicy food. There are wines that work with hot, ethnic chow but when it comes to compatible recommendations, it takes imagination and a whole lot of experimenting. Whether it’s a fiery Indian dish or a Sichuan plate with bite, we have discovered a host of wines that not only douse the heat, but work in harmony with it.
We were interested to see how service manager/sommelier, Gil Daniel, paired appetizers such as the Indo-Chinese style Manchurian Cauliflower and the Spicy Veal Brain and Veal Liver Bruschetta at Indian restaurant, Devi, in New York. Both dishes were a combination of pungent, bold, spicy flavors. What wine could possibly stand up to that? Turns out that the Antinori Vermentino and the bone dry, mineral Annie’s Lane Riesling from Claire Valley, did the trick.
Lamb-Stuffed Tandoori Chicken and yogurt-mint chutney also found a compatible pairing with the Australian Riesling. Gil explains, “When I became the wine director here I was totally challenged by the menu so I went on a tasting spree to see what worked. In this case the Riesling and the Vermentino clean out the palate and allow you to take another bite of spice.”
On the West Coast at Café del Ray in LA, Laurie Pesce, the general manager and sommelier, is in charge of a wine list that complements the chef’s heavily Asian influenced food. “No Chardonnay,” she pleads and adds, “Spiciness shouldn’t be accompanied by wood because it fights against the spice and doesn’t work in harmony. It just makes the wine taste flabby.”
In place of Chardonnay Laurie has compiled a list of unique whites, which she says are ideal with spicy food. “Rousanne, Marsanne, Riesling and Gerwuztraminer all stand up to spicy cuisine and Rhone whites containing Viognier, a full, rich variety that holds up to spice, almost always tend to go.”
Her picks skewed to red when we asked her what she would suggest with Café del Ray’s Curry Blackened Hawaiian Ahi Tuna dish. She suggested a lighter, fruitier style Pinot Noir. Another red Laurie favors with hot food is a Côtes du Rhône. She supports, “The fruit and spice of Syrah and Grenache are ideal.”
People who find themselves in the position of searching for a wine to wash down a fiery dish should follow the guidelines offered by William Redberg, the sommelier at Tamarine, a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant in Palo Alto, CA: “Generally, if you are going to be having very spicy food then you need a little residual sugar to coat the palate. A Riesling from the Mosel is ideal because it has a little creaminess and mineral that can go well. If the spices aren’t too hot then a wine with higher acid like an Austrian Riesling is good. Oily whites such as Gerwuztraminer from Alsace and some from Alto Adige also hold up.” He adds, “For reds avoid too much tannin and go for a Californian Pinot Noir instead.”
Some pairings that work brilliantly are totally unconventional. Andrea Englesis, a wholesaler of Greek wines, says, “When I first heard about Retsina and Indian food, I thought it was madness.” When she tried the two together her discovery was that it really does work, albeit with a modern style Retsina. Williams was pleasantly surprised when he happened upon a Brouilly (Beaujolais) that had six years of bottle age. He says, “The fruit was still bright but the wood had dissipated, and it had to compete with Serrano chilis.”
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