Here in the Cayman Islands, scotch bonnet peppers, jerk seasoning or curry sauces are likely to show up in a lot of meals. Wine lovers might think it better to choose a different beverage with spicy dishes, but there are actually plenty of wines that pair nicely with fiery foods, as Jacques Scott wine professionals Sarah Howard and Sergio Serrano demonstrated over lunch at Karma in Westshore Plaza.
There’s something about warm climates and spicy foods that seem to go together and it’s no different in the Caribbean.
Here in the Cayman Islands, where scotch bonnet peppers grow prolifically, nearly every restaurant – from those serving fast food fried chicken right up to the best fine-dining establishments – has spicy dishes on its menu.
Pairing wines with spicy foods is really quite easy, if a few simple guidelines are followed.
In general, the best wines for spicy food are low in alcohol and tannins and either fruity or a bit sweet.
Steer clear of ‘big’ red wines like California Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels, Australian Shirazs and Argentine Malbecs because the high alcohol content will make the wine seem hot on the palate when paired with spicy foods. If drinking a red wine, pick one with 13.5 per cent alcohol by volume or less.
Tannins don’t mix well with spicy food so highly tannic wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux and the Italian wines made with Nebbiolo – Barolo and Barbaresco – are not good choices.
Heavily oaked white wines – like many New World Chardonnays – aren’t great for spicy foods because the heat tends to mute the other flavours, leaving too much of an oaky taste.
Finally, you don’t want to pick a expensive wine with lots of taste nuances to pair with spicy cuisine because the heat will tend to numb the palate, somewhat wasting the complexities of the wine. As it happens, the wine characteristics that make for a good pairing with spicy foods are also the characteristics of many low-to-mid-priced quaffing wines that are lower in alcohol.
White wines have a leg up on red wines when you’re pairing with spicy food simply because they are served cold, helping to cool the heat on the palate caused by the spice.
Most white wines will pair reasonably well with spicy food, with the exception of Chardonnay. New World Chardonnay tends to be too oaked and have too high of an alcohol content and the nuances of good white Burgundy would be lost in the heat. That said, there are some Chardonnays – like a less expensive Chablis – that could work with spicy food.
Jacques Scott’s wine sales professional Sarah Howard chose two white wines that she thought would pair nicely with the spicy Asian fusion cuisine at Karma restaurant.
The first was Zardetto Prosecco Brut Treviso [Retail: $23.99], a wine made with 100 per cent Glera grapes. There’s an old saying that when in doubt about a wine and food pairing, go with bubbles, but that wouldn’t necessarily hold true with Brut Champagne and spicy food. However, with a cold, fruity, low-alcohol sparkling wine like Zardetto, spice and bubbles paired wonderfully with Karma’s spicy ahi tuna tartare.
“Prosecco has a little fruity sweetness,” said Howard. “It’s not bone dry and it’s unoaked.”
With a much lower price point than Champagne, the normal rules of glassware for bubbles don’t have to be followed. Although Champagne is generally consumed out of a flute glass to preserve the bubbles, Howard had the Prosecco poured in a regular white wine glass.
“I don’t like drinking sparkling wine out of a flute,” she said. “Yes, it preserves the bubbles, but I want to get the aromatics and you get that with [regular white wine glasses].”
In some cultures, it is traditional to serve a spicy dish at the beginning of a meal because it is thought to whet the appetite. That philosophy would work perfectly with Howard.
“I always think bubbles are a great way to start a meal,” she said. “Spicy food, not spicy food, whatever.”
A white wine that is well known for pairing with spicy foods is Riesling, especially those from Germany or Alsace. Low in alcohol content and with some residual sugar to balance the heat, German Riesling is about as good as it gets with many spicy foods and the Schäfer-Fröhlich Riesling [$42.95] was perfect with Karma’s five-spice duck chili lettuce wraps and its spicy sushi rolls.
Howard noted that the Schäfer-Fröhlich Riesling was a very good wine because it was not “too” anything – not too sweet; not too acidic; and there wasn’t too much petroleum in its aromas.
In addition to pairing well with spicy food, Riesling is generally a good wine with sushi – one of Karma’s specialities – and one of the few wines that can even stand up to wasabi.
“There’s a reason people say Riesling goes well with spicy food: it works,” Howard said. “There are other wines that work as well, but in a crunch, choose Riesling.”
Fröhlich means ‘cheerful’ in German, but Howard had her own definition in relation to the Schäfer-Fröhlich Riesling.
“Let me tell you what Fröhlich means,” she said. “It means happiness in your mouth.”
Rosés and red wines
Although there aren’t as many red wines that will pair well with spicy foods, there are still quite a few. Rosé wines – even the dry ones from Provence – often have flavours of strawberries or cherries, making them a nice contract with fiery foods.
La Vieille Ferme Rosé [$11.99] is a perfect, inexpensive wine to pair with a variety of spicy foods and went well with Karma’s Thai red curry with chicken. Made in Provence from three red grapes – Cinsault, Grenache and Syrah – La Vieille Ferme Rosé has an alcohol content of 13.5 per cent, a little higher than some Rosés but still low enough to pair with spicy food.
“I like Rosé with a little bit of spice,” said Howard. “I think it makes the fruit flavours in the wine pop.”
When it comes to red wines that pair well with spicy food, those that are lower in alcohol and tannins – like the Italian Barbera or the French Beaujolais – work, but so will the red blends of Côtes du Rhône. Tasted with the Thai red curry was Jean-Luc Colombo ‘Les Abeilles’ Côtes du Rhône [$16.99], an easy-to-drink, medium-bodied wine with 13.5 per cent alcohol. This wine is basically an even blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourverde that shows the smoothness of Grenache and a little bit of the spice of Syrah.
“It has plushy flavours,” said Howard, noting that although the wine itself wasn’t sweet, it had a fruitiness that made it seem so. The wine played well with the sweet and spicy combination of the Thai curry. It would also pair well with jerk chicken and pork dishes or with beef dishes that offer some heat, like a burger with jalepenos or jerk seasoning.
Sometimes, wine just isn’t the right beverage to pair with a particular food, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a beverage just right for that food, even if that beverage is water.
Take ultra hot spicy Buffalo-style chicken wings, for example. That is a food that calls for beer.
Beer is cold and low in alcohol, which makes it perfect for many spicy foods. To illustrate that point, Howard brought some Blue Moon Belgian White, which is made in the United States by the MillerCoors Brewing Company. Blue Moon is an unfiltered beer that has a slightly sweet taste and flavours of oranges, which is why it is often served with an orange slice garnish. It’s a beer that will help tame the spiciest of foods and will pair well with the natural fruity flavours of the scotch bonnet pepper.
In addition to alcohol and sugar, capsaicin, the ingredient in peppers that makes is hot, is also soluble in fats. Although wine doesn’t have fat in it, Karma’s house made liquid nitrogen ice cream does and its bacon and maple syrup ice cream put a sweet and tasty finish to a fantastic lunch.