The best wines to drink with hot chilli spice
What are the best wines to drink with spicy hot food? I’m talking here about chilli-hot food. Your first thought might be to reach for the biggest, heartiest red wine on the wine rack to pair with a hot chilli con carne for example - after all I recommend in my general food and wine matching tips that you think about the matching the structure of the wine and the food aiming to balance the weight or richness of the most dominant ingredient in the dish (often the sauce) with the body of the wine. You would therefore think that a strong flavoured, fuller-bodied wine might be the best choice of wine to drink with chilli. But there are much better wines to drink with chilli, wines that won’t be drowned by or that won’t clash with the chilli as I’ll explain.
What got me writing about wines and chilli is that I was recently thinking about which wine to serve with a particularly fiery tomato sauce. Many people, myself included, have been taking advantage of the ban on visiting restaurants and the extended time at home during lockdown in 2020 and 2021 to dig out long-abandoned recipe books and to look at the ever-increasing array of recipes online to produce meals that are a little different or more adventurous than we would produce in our usually time-poor weekday evenings. A new find was simple and very tasty pork mince burger recipe by Nigel Slater who is one of my favourite cooks, Pork burgers with lime leaves and coriander; burgers are not something I would usually choose to eat – but these are not normal times! The burgers themselves were delicious without any sauce as Nigel recommends them but I decided to add a hot tomato sauce and serve with pasta; the sauce was really very fiery, the chillies being hotter than I thought. Hence my wine choice dilemma…
Chilli is one of those flavours that are notoriously difficult to have with wine. It’s not actually the flavour that is the problem but rather the heat of the chilli; a substance called capsaicin in chillies creates the hot sensation that can feel like it is actually burning the inside of your mouth, your tongue and lips. Quite simply very hot spicy foods can dull the taste buds. The heat of chilli makes many wines taste completely different and usually not very pleasant as subtle complexities and fruit flavours are masked. Wines can seem rather hollow and not at their best.
Wines to drink with chilli
Assuming that you want to enjoy the complexities of the wine with your spicy hot food, look for wines with one or more of the following characteristics:
Wines with higher sugar
This doesn’t mean that you need to drink a dessert wine with your chilli; that would be a little strange. But seek out a slightly sweeter wine than you might usually drink - an off dry white wine with a good slug of refreshing acidity, will make a huge difference because the sweetness of the wine tempers the heat of the chilli – and the heat in the food takes away some of the wine's sweetness so you will not necessarily notice that the wine is off-dry. The weight of the slightly sweeter wine also balances well with the chilli and with other spices which is why I also recommend an off-dry wine such as a Riesling or an aromatic white wine that is slightly sweeter like Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer with your Chinese takeaway (even when it’s not a chilli hot meal).
It’s difficult to find red wines that have higher residual sugar levels but as a general rule, lower alcohol wines will be slightly sweeter than wines with 15% ABV.
Wines with lower alcohol
High levels of alcohol in wine can make spicy hot foods seem even hotter so to mute the heat of chillies look for wines with 9 to 12% ABV. This will mean you have a much bigger choice of white wines than you will of red wines – look to the cool climate regions where grapes are slower to ripen and therefore to convert their sugars into alcohol.
German reds and whites would usually fit the bill as would some Loire Valley wines like Chenin Blanc or a Portuguese Vinho Verde and most Proseccos. The slight sweetness and the spritz or bubbles of these latter two wines will also help dispel the heat – see above and below).
Wines with low tannins
One advantage of tannic wines is that the astringency of tannins can cut through rich or fatty food but the big disadvantage is that tannins accentuate the heat of spicy foods, masking all the flavours of the food and the wine. This is again why white wines, preferably off-dry but even dry white wines, are better partners for hot food than red wines.
If it has to be a red wine, make it one that is naturally low in tannins like a Pinot Noir, Dolcetto and Gamay rather than a big tannic Cabernet Sauvignon from, say, Bordeaux. Unoaked Grenache, Zinfandel or Merlot will usually also fit the bill.
Younger fruity wines
As a general rule younger wines that are not intended to be kept long or have not yet developed huge complexity are better for more elaborate and hotter dishes. Older fine wines with their more complex flavours and texture and in the case of red wines softer tannins are best kept aside for more simple fare. The more fruit-forward nature and lighter body of younger wines, red or white or rosé, balance well with hot chilli flavours. And you could even serve the reds slightly cooler than normal to help with the taming effects of the wine on the heat.
An off-dry Riesling or TWR’s Toru blend would be my top white wine recommendations with a complex slightly sweet Pinot Gris as a third option. A fruity rather than bone-dry rosé would make the cut and for reds a fruity Gamay from Beaujolais, a German Pinot Noir or a fruity Chianti style red would be perfect.
Wines with bubbles
You might want to keep your vintage champagne in the fridge but the fizz and acidity of a creamy non-vintage champagne or sparkling wine can also temper the heat.
How hot is hot?
Of course it depends on the dish and the level of heat in it how strictly you follow these recommendations. A mild chilli con carne without a great deal of heat will match as well or even better with a Malbec, a Carmenère or a spicy Rhone red. Chilli con carne is usually made with tomatoes; these and the proteins in the meat help to reduce any clash with the chilli’s heat. Vegetarian or vegan chilli would be better with lighter styles of wine as they are lacking in those animal proteins that help to reduce tannins.
What did I choose in the end to go with my super-hot chilli sauce – I chose a Fleurie from Beaujolais, a younger wine where fruity flavours dominate and tannins are subdued. In fact this particular wine intriguingly called Greta Carbo from Marc Delienne is produced in a natural style which gives it a particularly soft texture and a warm hint of a prickle and that also seemed to absorb some of the heat exceptionally well.
It was a good combination but, much as I hate to admit it, wine is perhaps not the best solution for extremely hot food – beer or a yoghurt drink like lassi would cool the mouth down more!
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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.