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How to Pair Wine with Spicy Food

Updated on March 30, 2010

As a wine lover living in Thailand and working in a Mexican restaurant…I’ve learned a thing or two about what doesn’t work in wine pairings!

After all, Thai and Mexican foods, both with their levels of spice and acidity can make wine pairing very difficult (Try eating a spicy Thai beef salad with a high alcohol tannic cabernet and you’ll see what I mean…after the flames stop searing the inside of your mouth!)

I am not a wine expert, but I do appreciate a glass of wine, and I have learned a bit about how to choose wines that work and don’t work, with the foods I commonly cook and eat. So here are a few general rules for matching wine to spicy food - rules that tell you more what doesn’t work than what does work, but that should help you avoid a truly disastrous wine pairing.

(Note, by spicy food, I am talking about the chili heat, not aromatic spices like those found in a mild curry. These require different pairing rules).

Rules for Matching Wine to Spicy Food

  1. Avoid high alcohol wines. Although the trend in big reds is ever more alcohol, high alcohol wines do not pair well with spicy foods. High alcohol amplifies the chili heat.
  2. Avoid tannic wines – Spicy food accentuates the bitterness of the tannins, and can make the wine taste pretty funky. Also, avoid wines with a lot of oak.
  3. A little sweetness in a wine works to tame the heat of chili (sweetness should be matched by acidity, ideally)
  4. Choose low alcohol wines with a little sweetness that is balanced by some fruity acidity…and you can’t go too far wrong.

Wines that work include:

  • Gewürztraminer
  • Rieslings (not dry Rieslings, think the German ones here!)
  • Beaujolais
  • Slightly sweet fruity sparkling wines (Asti)
  • Zinfandels
  • Californian pinot noir
  • Pinot grigio
  • Sauvignon blanc

Wines that don’t work include:

  • Oaky chardonnay
  • Cabernet sauvignon
  • Merlot

No wine pairs well with very spicy food. If you’re getting ready to ladle on that habanero pepper sauce…you’d be better of sticking with an ice cold beer!

60 Second Video on Pairing Wine and Spice


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