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Steven Kolpan is Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, NY. Steven is co-author of Exploring Wine, which has sold more than 125,000 copies, and was nominated as Best Wine and Spirits Book by the James Beard Foundation. Steven is also co-author of WineWise, a consumer-friendly guide to the wines of the world, which won both the 2009 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Beverage Book and the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Award for Best Wine Book of the Year. He is also the author of A Sense of Place, a history of Napa Valley's Niebaum-Coppola / Rubicon Winery (foreword by Francis Ford Coppola) that received the prestigious Versailles Award for Best American Wine Book in 2000. He is a contributing editor and the wine columnist for The Valley Table and Salon.com. In 2007, Steven Kolpan was named Wine Educator of the Year by the European Wine Council. He has been a member of Slow Food International for 20 years. Steven Kolpan lives just outside of Woodstock, New York.

What's Hot: Wine and Spicy Food

In the old days of wine and food pairing, the choice of a particular wine to accompany a particular dish was fairly predictable: white wine with fish, red wine with meat. The pairings were also Eurocentric, meaning that the marriage of food and wine was largely based on the classics: French wines (or wines made from the classic French grape varietals) with dishes that featured the four Mother Sauces of Carême – Béchamel, Espagnole, Velouté, or Allemande – or their derivatives, as developed by Escoffier in the early 20th century – tomato sauces, butter sauces, emulsified sauces, Mornay, Bordelaise, and on and on. In fact, “back in the day” the job of a sommelier was pretty easy: taste the sauces in the kitchen; pair the wine in the dining room.

Many of the wine and food matches derived from the classic European approach have withstood the test of time, and the pairings continue to make for a satisfying dining experience. But many of today’s chefs are creating dishes that are lighter than the classics and perhaps more important, are cooking in a Global Village. No longer content to focus solely on the traditions of Carême and Escoffier, chefs are looking and traveling all over the world for inspiration. Today’s wine service professionals need to follow that lead, catch that inspiration, and pair exciting wines with creative dishes that are either true to the letter or based on the spirit of foods from the Mediterranean, Asia, Central and South America, and any other place in the world with a dynamic food culture.
One of the most compelling trends in today’s restaurants is a sea change in the palate of both chefs and guests. Spicy food, from a reasonably mild mole of Mexico to a fiery hot chili sauce of China, has taken center stage in many restaurants, and customers are “eating it up.” Spicy foods add visceral excitement to dining, and cry out for a beverage that will cool down the heat while highlighting background flavors and textures. In the not too distant past, beer was the go-to drink for heat and spice, and most of the time a cold beer will chill the chilies without offending the rest of the dish; beer is a simple solution. Beer is also a cultural talisman, as many spicy-food cultures – India, China, and Mexico are just three examples – have, at least until recently, been closely identified with beer, each country producing craft beers as well as national brands.

The world is changing. Practically overnight, China has become the 6th largest wine-producing nation in the world, and India is coming on strong. Mexico has a small but active wine industry. Still, we don’t drink much wine from these countries, at least not yet. At the same time, chefs and restaurateurs want to offer great food and wine pairings with spicy dishes. Creating the ideal marriage of wine and spice can be challenging, testing the palates and creativity of chefs and wine professionals. The results can be sublime.

I am a great believer in rules, except when it comes to food and wine pairing. Unlike many of my fellow wine professionals, I believe that a) wine is a food that just happens to be in a glass; b) just as anyone can choose anything he/she wants to eat, the same person should be able to choose anything that he/she wants to drink, and c) although I believe in absolute freedom where wine and food are concerned, there are some helpful guidelines that may lead us to highly successful wine and food pairings. Where spicy food is concerned, I can’t emphasize enough that the traditional “rules” should be trashed, while attention must be paid to some pretty simple guidelines.

In general, when pairing food and wine the intensity of the food and the intensity of the wine should be near-equivalent: Power with Power. Light dishes with light-bodied wines, red meats and rich sauces with reds. When it comes to spicy food, forget that. A Thai beef salad, redolent of fresh lime juice and chilies, is not going to work with most red wines, even though the protein in the dish is beef. Think of the rare beef as a condiment to the salad, a lovely, rich texture, but with the sweet/sour lime juice and the spice of the chilies as the “center of the plate.” Did someone say “off-dry Riesling” or “Cava,” the great affordable sparkling wine from the Catalan region of Spain? Congratulations! You “get” it.

The fiery spice of chilies or other spice-laden ingredients is, honestly, a problem for many wines, because of 1) relatively high levels of alcohol in the wine; 2) tannins in red wines and oak-driven whites; and 3) relatively low acidity in popular wines for warm climates. Alcohol: every sip of wine, every bite of food amplifies both the alcohol of the wine and the heat of the dish, so unless your restaurant patron likes to sweat while eating, high alcohol does not work with spicy food. Tannins – the astringent/near-bitter elements of wine make the heat of the dish “pop,” while overwhelming every delicate nuance of flavor and texture in that same dish. Low levels of acidity don’t refresh, don’t cleanse the palate of heat and spice, and don’t encourage another bite of food, another sip of wine.

Let’s look at a semi-dry Riesling from the Mosel region of Germany, the Columbia Valley of Washington State, or the Finger Lakes of New York State. The very slight sweetness in this relatively low-alcohol wine actually will neutralize some of the heat of the chilies, making for a milder palate sensation, while the high acidity of a wine from a cool climate will refresh and “scrape” the heat from the palate, while matching the refreshing sweet/sour flavors of the fresh lime juice. The beauty of this pairing is that the rare beef stands out as a silky, sexy texture, but because it is a small, thinly sliced portion bathed in spice and lime, its power is ameliorated by its condiments. With the Riesling, the spicy beef becomes an earthy but delicate component of the dish, contrasting the citrus of the lime juice and the refreshing acidity of the wine.

If we pair the same dish with a sparkling Spanish Cava (or a Prosecco from Veneto, Italy, a Sekt from Germany, an Extra Dry Champagne, or a Blanc de Blancs méthode champenoise bubbly from California), all of the Riesling-Beef Salad interactions occur, plus one big contrasting interaction. The bubbles in the wine, coupled with fruit and acidity, really cleanse the palate efficiently, cooling off the heat, matching the acidity of the lime, and creating a bit of an instant marinade for the beef, rendering it richer and smoother as a background texture to the dish.

The key to pairing spicy food with wine is to create a contrasting relationship between the two flavor elements, not a complement. Fruity and/or off-dry white wines are the ideal choice for spicy food, as is bubbly, as is dry to semi-dry still or sparkling rosé. Light fruit-driven reds, such as Beaujolais or Valpolicella, as well as lighter, mostly inexpensive examples of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Merlot can work well with moderately spicy food, especially if you chill the wines for about a half hour before service to bring out their essential fruit. It would be a mistake to pair a spicy dish with an oaky Chardonnay – the oak and alcohol would fight the heat – or with a robust red, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah – the tannins would end up tasting bitter, as would the strong dose of alcohol. Instead, try a Sauvignon Blanc or unoaked Chardonnay (true Chablis is the benchmark of this style), a White Zinfandel, or a chilled Fleurie from the Beaujolais region of France.

Whether you’re serving spicy dishes from the Americas, Asia, the Mediterranean, or beyond, here are some wines that will almost always create a slam-dunk marriage with spicy food. Experiment with these – mix and match – and inevitably you will find a union that will lead to a lifelong and happy marriage in the glass and on the plate.

White Wines:

Riesling: Dry to semi-dry wines from the Mosel region of Germany, the Columbia Valley of Washington State, or the Finger Lakes of New York State

Chenin Blanc: Vouvray or Saumur from the Loire Valley of France, and varietal Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, South Africa or from Nasik, India.
Sauvignon Blanc: New World Sauvignon Blanc with its “fruit salad in a glass” flavors, shines in wines from Marlborough, New Zealand, as well as wines from California and South Africa. Sauvignon Blanc from Chile is getting better and better, and is a great (and economical) choice for a wine-by-the-glass – or bottle - with spicy food.

Gewürztraminer: “Gewürz” means spicy in German, so if you want to enhance the spice in a moderately spicy dish, choose this wonderful varietal, traditionally from Alsace, France, and bone dry. Off-dry to semi-sweet versions of the wine – actually more appropriate with a heavier dose of spice – are found in California and Washington State.

Chardonnay: avoid oak-and-alcohol bombs at all costs, but do choose unoaked, lighter examples of this wine from Chablis in Burgundy, France, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Italy, and California.

Viognier: The ancestral home for this grape is the Rhône Valley of France, but those wines tend to be a bit full and perhaps too dry for spicy food. Look for simpler, hazelnut-stone fruit laden Viognier wines from California or Australia.

Vinho Verde: This fruit-driven, off-dry, ultra-light-bodied, highly affordable white from Minho, Portugal is the ideal foil for seriously spicy food.

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio: The same grape in two different languages. Pinot Gris from Alsace might be too powerful, but easy-drinking Pinot Grigio from Northeast Italy is terrific, while fruity, nutty Pinot Gris from Oregon is ideal with spicy food.

Torrontes: While everyone knows about Malbec from Argentina, its signature white grape is still something of a secret. Floral, perfumed, fresh and fruity Torrontes is a wonderful match with spicy seafood dishes.

Rueda: named for its denominación in Spain, Rueda produces only white wines, featuring the fruity, juicy Verdejo grape. That juiciness is what makes Rueda wines perfect with hot and spicy dishes.

Moschofilero: Greece’s answer to Riesling, Moschofilero, from the Mantinia wine region of the island of Peloponnese, is a wine that will cool even the spiciest dishes, providing just a bit of charming fruit to the mix.

Sparkling Wines:

Just about any good sparkling wine from a cool climate – the lighter the better, the fruitier the better – will work well with heat and spice. Try Cava from Spain (an extraordinary value), Prosecco from Italy (likewise), fine sparklers from California, Washington State, Oregon, New Mexico, and New York State, as well as Asti (white bubbly) or Brachetto d’Acqui (light red bubbly), both from Piedmont, Italy, and both low in alcohol. For a real surprise, treat your customers to fruit-driven off-dry sparkling Shiraz from Australia, or a semi-sparkling, low-alcohol Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna.
Rosé/Blush Wines:

Thirst-quenching dry to off-dry rosés from Spain, France, Italy, California or Australia will create another fruit-driven “sauce” for spicy dishes. The strawberry/cranberry/raspberry notes pop right out of the wine. And don’t forget the previously ubiquitous (and undeservedly maligned) semi-dry to semi-sweet White Zinfandel if you want to calm that heat down with the tastes of berries and peaches.

Red Wines:

When it comes to reds, look for simpler wines that don’t have much more body than a rosé. That means Beaujolais (or any Gamay-based wine), Valpolicella, a simple Chianti, a lighter Côtes-du-Rhône, and inexpensive examples of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Merlot. A good rule of thumb: if the red wine can’t take chilling in the wine fridge before service, don’t pair it with spicy food. If a bit of chill brings out its fresh, red fruits, then that’s the red you want to counter the heat.

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