6 Jun 2012

Which wine to drink with spicy food?

If you just want an answer to this question, you can skip to the bottom of the page!

When I am in my cynical vein, I sometimes feel that the whole topic of wine and food "matching" is simply a good excuse for selling books on the subject. I suppose I should know, as I am responsible for a few of these, as requested by various publishers. Public demand seems to lie behind this spate of "litterature", and I find that questions linked to the topic are indeed among the most frequently asked in the wine classes that I teach. This curiosity (or should we call it "bafflement"?) seems to be quite widespread, and is probably born out by the fact that amongst the 20 or so books that I have written or co-written on and about the subject of wine, the best-selling one is entirely devoted to the subject of wine and food pairing.

(and to assume my cynicism to the hilt, here is a link to enable you French-speakers to buy this book, which I compiled in partnership with a food speicialist, Pierre-Yves Chupin, and which acts as a double-entry dictionary that can operate either from the wine side or the food side)
http://www.amazon.fr/Vin-cherche-plats-David-Cobbold/dp/2215094249

To be perfectly honest, the more I live and try different wines and foodstuffs together, the less I feel that I have any real certainties about the topic. My only heartfelt piece of advice to anyone would go something like this : "just try what you feel like drinking at that moment with what you have on your plate, or vice-versa. You have as much chance of enjoying the experience as you will by reading all this theory written about the subject of the do's and dont's of wine and food pairing!"

But of course there are some foodstuffs that make matching a wine to them tricky, and one of them is clearly spicy food. Just by chance the other day I was having lunch alone at home, next to my office, after a tasting session on some rosé wines which seem to be all the rage at the moment here in France. Being alone and in a hurry I micro-waved a one stop meal which happened to be curry based. As I had two bottles, one red and one white, open and to hand, I decided to see which one went best with this slightly spiced dish, which used chicken and rice as its mainstay. 



The red wine was a gloriously deep and aromatic thing from the Corbières region of France's Languedoc. Named, rather mysteriously, Atal Sia, (which I understand means "so be it") this is a relatively upmarket cuvée from the 2009 vintage produced by a very reliable estate called Ollieux Romanis, from which I have never had a bad wine. This particular cuvée retails for slightly less that 20 euros. I had tried it the evening before and it was quite glorious, full-bodied without being overpowering, pungent with wild herb and garrique-like aromas, quite smooth in texture yet strongly lingering on the palate. A journey to a wild and rocky place, yet a civilised journey. For those interested, this wine is a blend of various grapes used in the Corbières appellation, with carignan making up almost 50%, the rest being divided between grenache and mourvèdre, plus just a pinch of syrah. 


The white wine was an off-dry Riesling (so many are just that these days, without even declaring their residual sugar, but that is another problem) from Alsace and produced by an estate with which I am not familiar. The estate is called Domaine du Windmuelh (yes, it means "windmill" in the Alsatian dialect of German), and the cuvée is called Riesling Vieilles Vignes 2010. The wine was perfectly good on its own and, probably on account of its slight sweetness that balanced its fine acidity, reminded me more of the delicate German stye of rieslings that the usual Alsace style which tends often towards more alcoholic power and so less sugar. This wine would, I expect, have qualified for the spätlese category had it been German. I do not know what it costs but I suspect in the vicinity of 10 euros.

Some authors recommend going for a rich and slightly spicy red wine to match the spices of a curried dish. I have never found this to be good advice and indeed it didn't work at all in this case. The powerful Corbières red, glorious on its own, lost all its depth and finesse and tasted like a rather ordinary rough red when I tried the curry dish with it. On the other hand, the Riesling just sung out! It fruit was enhanced, its fine acidity balancing the richness of the sauce and its small amount of sweetness was sufficient to master the low-level fire engendered by the curry. The whole experience was refreshing and enhancing for both the dish and the wine. I suppose that puts it close to the elusive "perfect match" category.