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Pairing Wines with Spicy Foods: Solace for a Seared Palate

by Barbara Ensrud

Wondering what to drink with those fiery flavors that are all the rage these days? Lots of folks choose beer, particularly with south-of-the-border hot stuff, but also with pungent oriental dishes -- from vindaloo (India's hottest curry) to incendiary Thai, Hunan or Szechuan cuisines.

For some of us, however, beer's effervescence seems only to "stoke the fire" instead of calm it down. Any carbonated drink, in fact, can make chili peppers more explosive -- at least for an instant. When the bubbles collide with the heat the sting fairly ricochets. While some people (what I call the scorch-and-singe set) love that, others want a little relief between bites. Happily, there are lots of wines that can handle the blaze.

Blush Wines

Blush wines with their light, cool, refreshing fruit flavors and appealing hint of sweetness are a soothing balm for the fieriest dishes. Maybe that's why sangria (wine mixed with fruit juices, orange slices and ice) was invented. Sangria does work well with culinary pyrotechnics, especially those hot Latin chilis, but so do a number of wines: Gewurztaminer, Chenin Blanc and Riesling.

A slight touch of sweetness takes the edge off the heat of spicy foods, but if the wine is too sweet it interferes with the other flavors. The perception of dry or sweet, however, is strictly personal. Recommended below are a few wines that I have found to work quite well; they have just the right touch of sweetness, balanced with crisp acidity, to be refreshing. Look for young wines, preferably no older than 1994.

Specially recommended ($5.99 to $9):

DeLoach White Zinfandel and Early Harvest Gewurztraminer
Louis M. Martini White Zinfandel
Robert Mondavi Woodbridge White Zinfandel
Preston Chenin Blanc
Simi Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon
Elk Cove Riesling
Fall Creek Emerald Riesling
Daniel Gehrs Chenin Blanc Le Cheniere
Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Chenin Blanc and Riesling
Alexander Valley Vineyards Chenin Blanc
Llano Estacado Riesling
Trefethen White Riesling

Pinot Gris

Spicy dishes offer the perfect opportunity to try some of the zesty, newish wines that are becoming more widely available in the United States (such as Pinot Gris) most of which now comes from Oregon. My hope is that more winegrowers will grow pinot gris, not only in the northwest but also in other parts of the country, including cooler regions of California. If there is plenty of supply prices will remain low. With few exceptions, Pinot Gris made in this country are simple, fruity wines.

Specially Recommended ($9 to $12):

King Estate
Rex Hill

Other Dry Whites

Some dry whites also work with spicy foods, especially fish and shellfish or chicken. Chardonnay that really has the character of Chardonnay is rarely a good choice in my view, oaky ones especially. White wines that can do the job nicely include Soave, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, genuinely dry Riesling and one or two others as listed. Again, young ones are best -- 1994 and, in the spring, 1995.

Specially recommended ($6.50 to $11):

Alderbrook Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc
Dry Creek Fume Blanc
Benziger Fume Blanc
Foppiano Sauvignon Blanc
Fortant Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvion Sancerre
Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling
Hogue Cellars Dry Riesling
Les Jamelles Marsanne
Qupe Marsanne

Vin Gris

One category of wines I always consider with pungent dishes is vin gris. These dry or very slightly off-dry pink wines are delightful with a variety of spicy foods, whether southwestern in accent, oriental or, for me in particular, middle eastern. I discovered how well they work while in Morocco. Though white and red wines are made there, the youthful dry pinks were always the best with the local food -- fresh, light-bodied but flavorful enough to go with lamb dishes, cous cous and certainly with those tangy little sausages that are so popular throughout the Middle East.

Dry roses, such as some of the attractive values from the south of France, fall into this category as well. Look for the 1994/95 vintage.

Specially recommended ($5.99 to $11):

Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare
Sanford Vin Gris
Saintsbury Vincent Vin Gris
Klein Vin Gris
Joseph Phelps Vin Gris de Mistral
Fortant Rose de Syrah
Reserve St.Martin Rose de Syrah
Qupe Mourvedre Rose
La Vieille Ferme Rose


Moderately spicy foods, such as milder meat curries, tandoori chicken and simple fajitas, can handle young red wines such as lighter Zinfandels, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir and certain blends. The reds recommended below are light enough to be chilled, which makes them all the more refreshing and palate-soothing.

Red Wines (best lightly chilled):

Beaujolais-Villages 1994
Beaujolais Nouveau 1995
Ravenswood Vintner's Reserve Zinfandel '92/'93
Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy 1994
Martin Bros. La Primitiva Zinfandel '92
Seghesio Pinot Noir 1993/'94
Meridian Pinot Noir 1993
Quivira Dry Creek Cuvee 1993
Preston Faux 1993
Saintsbury Garnet Pinot Noir 1993/94

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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