Fire Extinguishers - Wines with Fiery Food
Copyright 2006 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed September 13, 2006. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
I love fiery fare, the hotter the better. From five-pepper Thai or Sichuan to Indian vindaloos and on to searing Jamaican, sweat-provoking Cajun or the lovely earthy heat of Mexican chile peppers, I say, "Bring it on!"
I love wine, too.
But I rarely love fiery dishes and wine together. What's the problem here?
Let's review a little food chemistry: The active ingredient in hot chile peppers is called capsaicin (pronounced "cap-SAY-uh-sin"), a flavorful substance that prompts your trigeminal nerve to release "substance P," a chemical messenger that tells your brain something's burning. The brain responds, scientists say, by producing endorphins - natural painkillers that generate a sense of well-being. It's something like a "runner's high," without the exercise.
So far, so good. But here's the bad news: Following that happy heat with a gulp of wine can turn this mellow burn into a less pleasant pain. It's not unlike pouring alcohol on a burn, and in fact that's pretty much what you're doing.
Of course, I still keep trying to find wines that work with heat, or at least that won't absolutely war with more modestly hot-and-spicy dishes.
If you want to join me in the quest, here are a few tips I've learned for matching wines with hot stuff:
- Fizz helps. Carbonated bubbles seem to scrub some of the heat from your palate, whether it's beer or bubbly. Try a sparkling wine.
- Low alcohol. If part of the problem is that alcohol intensifies the burning sensation, go with lighter wines with alcohol content below the 12 percent level.
- A little bit of sugar. I'm not sure what chemical process is in play here, but in my experience, off-dry to gently sweet wines seem more friendly to spicy fare than bone-dry items.
- Tangy acidity. If alcohol exaggerates the "burn," it seems that tart acidity might be a problem too. In practice, however, high-acid wines seem to create a mouth-watering effect that can dilute the fire.
This set of criteria pretty much rules out inky blockbusters like big Shirazes and roughly tannic reds such as California Cabernets and immature Bordeaux. But it leaves sparkling wines, German Rieslings, Italian Moscato d'Asti and even high-acid food wines like Chianti and fruit-forward items like some of the less powerfully alcoholic Zinfandels very much in play.
But here's something to think about: Does any wine incorporate all of the above criteria...fizzy, low-alcohol, slightly sweet, acidic and fruity? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. The Italian Lambrusco fits this description to a "T", and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for, well, "peppers."
Now, Lambrusco is not a niche that most wine enthusiasts regard highly, particularly because mass-market Riunite and Cella have flooded the international market with very inexpensive, industrially produced models that wine geeks (not entirely fairly) rate as swill. Artisanal Lambruscos can be delightful, though; and a somewhat similar, much more obscure treat from Lombardy, Sangue di Giuda, makes an even more intriguing low-alcohol, fizzy red quaff ... if you can find it.
I reported about this time last year on the 2004 Sangue di Giuda. For today's tasting, I tried the just-arrived 2005 with a fiery Sichuan tofu-and-ground-beef stir-fry. Its frothy, sweet-yet-acidic fizz and very low alcohol made it a surprisingly good match, and its fresh fruit and bitter-almond flavors couldn't have been better with the dish.