How to pair spicy food with wine

by House of Scoville
March 09, 2018
How to pair spicy food with wine

It's no secret that wine should be paired with appropriate foods. We've all heard about the elusive perfection that arises when wine compliments a meal. The secret is which foods go great with wine, and which ones don't. I've known for many years that wine is a drink to be paired properly with food, but it took me many more to recognize which foods were actually appropriate.

Mixing and matching flavours in meals is an art, and a complex one to boot. Whoever first found out that cranberries blend amazingly with brie cheese to bring out a degree of flavour that's leagues above either food alone was either a genius or very brave/stupid. Whatever the case, it changed culinary history forever.

Those who first discovered how to pair wine with chilli have also changed the history of culinary culture forever, and now, we're going to impart that knowledge to you, our humble chilli-loving readers.

The mix and match

There are a couple ways that one can go about pairing wine and chilli.

  • As a synergistic duo: you can try to find a wine that complements the flavour of the food when the two are combined together

  • You can try to offset the spiciness of the food by choosing a sweeter wine.

A couple good rules of thumb to keep in mind are that you don’t want to have wine that’s too high in alcohol, because that might not combine well with the flavour. It’s equally important not to get a very mellow wine because then your wine will be overpowered by the spice of the meal. The main thing here is finding balance.

Wines to avoid:

  • Tannic wines, such as cabernet blends, shouldn’t be paired with spicy food because they can accentuate the tannins. This will lead to an overwhelmingly bitter flavour in the wine.

  • Oaky wines - those that have been left to sit in oak barrels during the fermentation process - like Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay (many oaked wines will have a note on the label to let you know if they’ve been stored in oak), should be avoided as well, for the same reasons - the spice will bring out too much of the oak flavour.

So what should you choose then?

The best of the remaining options leaves you with lighter bodied wines and those that are notably sweet. Alcohol is known for making the burn from spice more intense. Sugar, on the other hand, is known to negate it to some degree. Playing with these two factors is the key to finding the perfect wine and chilli combination.

There are some ‘rules’ to consider when you’re on the hunt for the perfect wine to put with your chilli or hot sauce.

  • Acidity - Think about how acidic the wine in question is. The acidity in the wine can be a good thing, if the meal you’re serving is very sweet or has a lot of fat/oil in it.
  • Alcohol content - As we’ve mentioned, wines too high in alcohol can actually detract from the overall experience of your chilli. However, if you’re serving a meal with lots of chilli that’s actually quite sweet, a high alcohol content may pair nicely with the sweetness by balancing it out with bitterness.
  • Salt - Remember not to salt your meal too heavily. This goes for anything that you’re going to pair with wine, not just chilli - if you use too much salt, it can become difficult to retain a good balance between chilli and wine.
  • Sweetness - It’s sometimes practical to think of sweetness and spice as parallels when you’re trying to find a good wine to mix with your chilli. The spicier the food, the sweeter the wine that you pair with it should be. 
  • Texture - It’s important to make sure the wine has a rich texture, regardless of the variety that you decide to get. Tannins are important to balance here, and it doesn’t matter if the wine is dry or sweet.
    • If you’re cooking chilli with acidic ingredients like vinegar or lime, get something sweet and light.
    • Mild chilli that doesn’t have too much of a kick should be paired with a wine like Malbec - one that has a subtle blend of flavor that enhance the spices present in your chilli.
    • The spiciest chillies should be mixed with bold, strong wines. Shiraz is good for super hot dishes; the strong fruity flavours are great but are not overbearing in the wake of a super hot meal.

It’s always a good idea to serve the wine as cold as possible. This allows it to hydrate your flavour palette which further enhances the spices used in your food. The sweetness acts as a sort of coating that prevents you from getting the full burn of the spice; the temperature helps to temporarily phase out all burn for a few seconds.

Pro tips to pair chilli with wine

There are a few other ideas that you should keep in mind. These will help you pin down the perfect wine for your chilli.

  • If you’re making chilli that’s tomato-based, you should shoot for a red wine that's not too acidic. Italian wines are good for this; the sweetness of Zinfandel is also ideal for tomato-based foods because they can balance the acidity without hindering the spice factor in the meal.

  • If you’re making chilli that’s not based on tomatoes, it will best be complemented by a white wine.

  • If you’re serving something meaty or with an earthy taste - foods with pork, beef and chicken are particularly earthy - you’ll want a very fruity wine to help enhance the taste.

  • For the spiciest of spicy foods, you might want to consider a blush wine. They're very light on alcohol, so you can drink larger sips - an ideal for those who aren’t used to hotness - and they have just enough sweetness to match with the flavour.

  • If you’re making a traditional chilli with a lot of Eastern or Mexican spices, you might want to consider Zinfandel to smooth things out.

  • If you’re in a bind, Rosé is a good all-around wine that can be paired nicely with just about any kind of chilli. Remember - the hotter the chilli, the sweeter the wine.

The act of pairing wine with chilli is like an art. You could even call it a science - and maybe that’s the best way, because there might be some amount of trial-and-error that you have to put into finding the right wine.

While we’ve certainly given you about as much advice as you’ll ever find on the Art of Pairing Wine with Chilli, we can’t be the end-all. You know what your food tastes like better than we do, and you know what wines are available. Make your decision based on your best feeling and hope that anyone eating the food with you will agree that you’ve made the right one!

At House of Scoville, we support Australian small-batch hot sauce makers. In line with our philosophy, we recommend you purchase your wines from Naked Wines, whose mission is to promote quality wines from independant Australian winemakers. Plus, you can claim $100 off your first order by clicking on the banner below. Enjoy!

Naked Wine coupon

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