Wine and Spicy Food

I spent last week-end leading tutored tastings at the West Dean Chilli Fiesta. This is a terrific event that happens every August in the middle of the South Downs just north of Chichester and it celebrates all things spicy – mainly the chilli itself, but also everything connected with it. There are stalls with chilli sauces, chilli dips, chilli plants, paintings of chillis, models of chillis, shirts emblazoned with chillis, pots, pans and chilli ice-cream. There is a plethora of spicy foods to enjoy; Mexican, Jamaican, Indian, Singaporean, Indonesian, Thai and American all washed down by the products in the delightfully English beer tent and made even more fun by the variety of live Latin American music, including salsa and Mariachi.

chill-i out room at West Dean Chilli Fiesta

As far as wine is concerned though it was just me and my colleagues. My job was to lead 6 tutored tastings a day about the wines of Viña Errazuriz who are one of Chile’s top producers – you see what we did there with Chilli/Chile? I covered quite a few topics, different regions of Chile, winemaking styles, I even compared different Syrahs from around the world with one from Viña Errazuriz.

The Viña Errazuriz wine theatre

All the sessions were fun, even though I say so myself, and seemed to be enjoyed by everyone who came. My favourite tasting though dealt with the subject of the whole fair – spices. We had a whole workshop tasting partnering wine with spicy food and it was great fun.

We all know there are many different types of spicy foods, but Indian food is by far the dominant type in the UK. When most of us enjoy a curry or Indian meal we almost automatically drink something with it that washes the flavours away – a soft drink or a beer. With pretty much every other food type we try to drink something that will compliment the flavours and make the experience better – claret and lamb, chablis and shellfish and so on.

So, that is slightly odd and we either do that because most Indian restaurants have rotten wine lists, or they have rotten wine lists because we all drink beer. Whichever came first the upshot is that most of us drink refreshing liquids with a curry, which can be very enjoyable, but drink a wine with it can be at least as enjoyable a match.

If you drink a wine with a curry or spicy food though it works quite differently from most beers, it interacts with the flavours rather than washes them away and refreshes your palate. Of course sometimes that interaction is not the one you are looking for as my tasting showed.

For the tasting I had chosen wines that could all in theory be a good match with spices, but in different ways. We partnered them with some spicy tortilla chips, sweet Thai chilli rice crackers, chilli thin biscuits and spicy Bombay mix without nuts.

I was interviewed about the spicy food and Chilean wine tasting by Joe Talbot from BBC Radio Sussex and you can hear that discussion by clicking on the arrow below: 

2010 Errazuriz Single Vineyard Aconcagua Costa Sauvignon Blanc
Coastal Aconcagua Valley

I rate this Sauvignon very highly and the theory was that in this tasting a crisp, fresh Sauvignon would cleanse and refresh the palate. Actually with some of the foods the wine’s acidity muted the heat, with others it brought out some sweetness and clashed with others leaving a bitterness in the mouth.

So this was a patchy result that therefore cannot accompany an entire spicy meal, but is nice with spicy tortilla chips.

2008 Errazuriz Single Vineyard Gewürztraminer
Casablanca Valley

Gewürz is the German for spicy, so many people assume this grape will be perfect with spicy food. Personally I have never been convinced and regard it as more aromatic than spicy anyway. This is an excellent wine, lighter and fresher than a Gewürztraminer from Alsace, but still low in acid and this produces an amazing effect.

This wine emphasised the heat of all the foods, making them hotter – just what real curry enthusiasts want I should expect, but not appealing to those seeking balance.

2010 Errazuriz Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé
Aconcagua Valley

I was impressed by this rosé, it has plenty of character and loads of ripe strawberry fruit, but is not too gloopy, however the fruit does give the impression of the wine being not quite dry – not sweet, just not dry.

It was this fruit and touch of sweetness that made this wine work quite well with the spicy food actually as it anchored the wine strongly in its own characters and stopped it changing at all, in a sense it did not interact with the wine, but rode roughshod over it, but was pleasant with all the foods.

2010 Errazuriz Estate Shiraz
Aconcagua Valley

This is a richly fruity and stylish Shiraz whose fruit, smooth tannins and touch of black pepper spice I thought could well match the spicy food.

In practise what happened was that the foods took out some of the rich fruit leaving the wine muted and the food slightly bitter, perhaps those tannins are just too smooth?

2010 Errazuriz Estate Carmenère
Aconcagua Valley

I am a huge Carmenère enthusiast and this is a lovely introduction to the grape, gently spicy, richly fruity yet savoury with balsamic notes and elegant, slightly chalky drying tannins. I know from previous experience that Carmenère can go very well with curry, however I was not prepared for quite what a great match it was with everything.

The flavours of the wine really mingled beautifully with all the foods making this a perfect match with an array of spicy cuisines including Mexican and Thai as well as Indian. I think in the end it was because the wine is more firm and structured than the Shiraz, so there is something other than fruit for the spices to work with, including a dash of acidity.

So, if you are having a good spicy meal and want to drink something with it that really compliments the flavours, do try Chilean Carmenère, it is a wonderful partner with an array of spicy foods and actually make the combination of wine and food better than the sum of their parts.

Errazuriz wines are available in the UK from Majestic Wine Warehouses and Waitrose amongst others, more information is available from Hatch Mansfield Agencies.

Many thanks to Rachel Hollinrake for use of the photographs.

6 thoughts on “Wine and Spicy Food

  1. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  2. Some hot and spicy Thai dishes, or hot curries for example, often taste best when the food is paired with sweet dessert wines. The sweet, botrytis-affected wines that can be paired with spicy foods are rated in ascending order of sweetness: Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese. The low alcohol (8-10%) compared to Alsatian, Austrian and southern hemisphere Rieslings (12-15%) is an added benefit because alcohol also activates oral pain receptors (think about a shot of vodka) and will therefore kick up the burn.

    • Thanks for that, interesting thought. Strangely I have had sweet wine with curry and it is not for me, a little sweetness works, but not actually a sweet wine, the botrytis sort of muddys it for me. Great thought though. Thanks

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