Wine has also been associated with good health since the time of the Ancients and we know through archaeological and documentary evidence that wine has been part of the dining experience since the earliest days of its creation; it was seen as a medicine for the body’s well-being, a tonic to aid digestion and a nepenthe for the mind and soul.
The purpose of pairing wine and dish is ultimately one of ambition and purpose, for it is the belief of great sommeliers and people of wine, that if the pairing works well it has the capacity to elevate the entire dining experience. The wine working to make the food taste better even as you are enjoying it, the food complimented by and highlighting in return the wine, transforming the entire meal from exceptional to unforgettable.
When it comes to pairing food and wine in general, I have a number of criteria I need to posit, consider it a number of questions that I like to be able to answer in the affirmative before I am happy to make a recommendation. However, it is also important to remember that wine and food pairing is completely subjective and what I am happy to recommend and even the criteria I use, may not be to everyone’s liking and that is perfectly ok with me, because the more we all experiment, the more we all discover.
The body of the wine and the body of the dish are important for me when pairing, is the dish heavy or light or somewhere in between and therefore is the wine of similar weight. Pairing light, elegant wines to heavy, strongly flavoured dishes can overwhelm the flavours of the wines and leave it tasting a little like a glass of water. Conversely, pairing a big, full-bodied and perhaps tannic wine with a lighter, more delicately flavoured dish can leave the food tasting bland and boring. Wherever possible I consider like-for-like light to medium-bodied wines with lighter dishes and medium to fuller-bodied wines with heavier, fuller flavoured dishes. Here the quest is balance, a harmony between the food and the wine and not to have one dominating the other.
Just as chefs pair proteins and vegetables with certain sauces, purees, gravies and marinades because they have flavours that complement, so too do wines possess flavours that can complement proteins and other ingredients in the same way. The little hint of mint in a cool climate Cabernet with some lamb, the peppery spice in a Shiraz or Syrah with beefsteak, the citrus character in a Riesling with white-fleshed fish, the smokiness in a barrel matured Chardonnay with Salmon are a few that readily come to mind.
As well as weight and flavour we consider other ‘in-mouth’ sensations when it comes to pairing food and wine, things like the texture of the wine can play a significant role in potential pairings.
Wines with good mineral or chalky acidity or wines with course, drying tannins can contrast with richly flavoured foods, foods that are a little oily or fatty. They work well because they cut through these oils and fats and clean up the palate, revitalizing it and enabling the diner to enjoy each mouthful afresh and without getting coated in oils and fatigued with excessive fats. Conversely, dishes that are bitter and astringent can benefit from a touch of sweetness and glycerol. It is worth remembering that bitterness or astringency in food tends to enhance bitterness or tannins in wine and this can make an unpleasant combination. Dishes with high levels of acidity need to be paired with wines that have a higher level of acidity or acidic intensity or it will taste like it is lacking in structure and when looking to match sweet wines with sweet desserts, the wine needs to be sweeter than the dish or it will taste bland.
The Spice Question
Firstly, it helps to understand a little about peppers, what makes hot peppers hot is an alkaloid called capsaicin and related compounds known as capsaicinoids. When capsaicinoids bind to pain receptor neurons on the tongue they immediately send messages, (probably along the lines of: ouch this is bloody hot) to the brain. Now it will also help to learn that Capsaicin is insoluble in water -which is why drinking icy water provides little relief from the burn beyond the first few precious gulps, once the mouth warms up the burn is back.
In some regions of the sub-continent they serve yoghurt drinks to go with rich fiery curries; capsaicin is fat-soluble and yoghurt shakes are cold, high in lactic acidity (to stimulate saliva flow) and have some sweetness (which is also proven to ameliorate the burn), this makes a yoghurt shake a very effective remedy.
However, if knocking over a few bottles of vintage yoghurt at dinner is not your idea of a fine repast, good news is at hand. Capsaicin is also soluble in alcohol and fruit sweetness, (natural fruit sugars) such as those found in wine is very effective at ameliorating mouth burn. Acidity is also effective in wiping out some of those burning sensations because of its promotion of saliva flow.
It is important to remember that Alcohol, once it reaches certain concentrations, (usually once you get up over about 12.5% Alcohol to Volume) gives off a warm feeling in the mouth and we certainly don’t want to be attempting to wash away heat with more heat!
That is why I look to low-alcohol wines to match with hot and spicy dishes, wines from cooler climates with alcohol levels under or up to about 12%.
Regardless of heat intensity I always like to try to match the weight or body of the wine to the weight of the dish. Put simply, for lighter dishes I look to lighter bodied wines and for heavier dishes I look to fuller-bodied wines.
Matching wine to hot, spicy fuller-bodied dishes should not mean higher in alcohol, oak character and tannin, I find tannin and oak are amplified with hot spicy foods and are generally an altogether unpleasant combination. In my opinion, big spicy, alcoholic reds brimming with woody/ oak characters and aggressive tannins render the dish awful and your palate wanting to sue you for malpractice.
When matching wines to lighter bodied, spicy dishes such as Thai salads and soups, fish, hot and sour dishes or vegetarian curries, my preferred wine of choice is a cool-climate, low alcohol Riesling, usually from Germany or Alsace France, but it may be from Australia or New Zealand; the higher the heat intensity the sweeter I tend to like it. Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio can also work well as can Sauvignon Blanc and a light gewürztraminer. A juicy Viognier, (but again watch the alcohol level) can work well with curried chicken dishes, whilst with dishes of extreme heat intensity, a slightly spritzy Moscato tends to work very well.
When it comes to fuller flavoured dishes and red wines I tend to be a little more controversial. I look for rich, juicy, flavourful reds with good acidity, low alcohol and barely perceptible tannins. The wine that works perfectly well for me is a good, rich, cool-climate, New World pinot noir or a riper French Burgundy. Now whilst these wines are generally categorized as medium-bodied, the rich primary fruit flavours and good acidity see them stand up to the most vigorous red curry beef or Szechuan peppered pork. A Cote du Rhone or Cool Climate Syrah/shiraz will also do nicely; just watch the tannins and alcohol levels.