On Pairing Wine with Spicy Food

Paul Blow

Conventional wisdom has it that spicy food is no good with most California and new-world wines. It's the high level of alcohol and tannin (in reds) that's the culprit: The wine tastes bad, the food is murdered, and the eater is left with a burning tongue.

The solution has been to serve low-alcohol wines with spicy food, most commonly German Riesling, which is often as low as 9 percent alcohol, has little or no tannin, and has residual sugar that is supposed to be the one thing that will soothe the burn of spicy chiles. But other wines like Champagne, Beaujolais, and Moscato d'Asti are also trotted out.

Jill Gubesch, sommelier at Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill in Chicago, has found that high-alcohol and even tannic wines not only can go with spicy food but often are the best answer.

A California winemaker friend told me about a wine-pairing dinner he had hosted at Frontera. "She's a genius," he said of Gubesch. "The pairings blew me away." I had to see this for myself, so on a recent trip to Chicago, I put myself in Gubesch's hands. She often has to overcome prejudices, she told me. "When people see my pairings," she said, "they freeze up. I see the look in their eyes because they don't understand what's happening."

I started with the trio of ceviches—Fronterizo: lime-marinated sunfish with tomato, olives, cilantro, and green chile; Yucateco: shrimp and squid with habanero and avocado; and Atun Tropical: yellowfin tuna with mango-grapefruit salsa. With it came a trio of wines: a German Riesling (Ress 2006 Kabinett), a Champagne (Duval-Leroy Brut), and an Oregon Pinot Gris (A to Z 2008). "This is a beautifully balanced Riesling from the Rheingau," said Gubesch, "but you'll find that it collapses into sugar water against the lime in the ceviches. The Champagne has the same acidity as the lime, so it works throughout. The Pinot Gris is also effective. But, funny enough, only Oregon Pinot Gris works, not Alsace." She was right about everything.

Gubesch came by her pairings through trial and error. "When I first took the job," she said, "I sat down with about 10 wines a night and a couple of different dishes, just tasting a lot to try to figure it out on my own." Also, she delved deeply into the food. "The executive chef at the time took me on a chile tour, talking about all the different chiles and their flavor profiles," she told me later. "Remember, chile is a fruit. And when I was tasting all the different chiles on their own, the dried red chiles, I found all these different wine flavors in the chiles themselves."

For instance, in pasillas she found flavors of bittersweet chocolate and coffee. In guajillo chiles, she noted tangy red fruits like cherries and raspberries. Ancho "has a lot of dried fruit characteristics like dried cranberry or currant flavors; it's really fruity and has less heat." And morita chile is "like a chipotle, a smokier one."

In her trials, she found that matching the winelike flavors of the chiles with the wines that evoked those flavors was more effective than worrying about alcohol or tannin. For instance, the coffee and chocolate notes in the pasilla echoed the notes of toasty oak in new-world reds. Morita peppers, she found, often worked with the dusty tannins of Rioja and Chianti.

My next course was lamb rib-eye in Bayless's famous black mole (the sauce with which he won Top Chef Masters). The sauce has what Gubesch calls "building heat." You don't notice it so much up front, but it accumulates slowly over time. Her favorite match for this spicy dish is Zinfandel—a pairing that would freak out traditionalists. But when I was there, she was out of the wine, so she used Bodegas Ateca "Atteca Armas," a 15.5 percent alcohol behemoth from 100-year-old Garnacha vines in Calatayud, Spain. And her point was well made. I wouldn't have liked this wine on its own; it was hot with alcohol and oaky. But against the chihualces chiles (and 26 other ingredients) of the mole, it was superb. The wine's massive up-front fruit balanced the heat of the chiles, which in turn knocked out the sensation of oak. The pairing was a revelation.

Gubesch's discoveries could have a profound effect on the wine world. New-world wines, which are often snubbed for their inability to pair well with fiery food, now have an application at the table. It's just an application that no one would have ever suspected.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.