7 Essential Wine and Spicy Food Pairings, According to an Expert
A seasoned sommelier and certified spice lover weighs in on her favorite pairings (including goat curry and Cabernet Sauvignon)
When sommelier Beverly Crandon was working through her wine education, she noticed a major gap in the way the wine world operates. Namely, there were no traditional pairings for high-spice foods. Crandon was learning to match wines with roast chickens and seared steaks, but what do you drink with curry, pad thai or anything with a heat level above zero? Sommeliers seemed stumped.
Now, Crandon runs a Toronto-based dinner series and spice-focused social media, where she opens drinkers’ eyes to how exciting the world of pairing wines with flavorful foods can be.
“As a lover of wine and a certified sommelier, I understand the benefits and the beauty of taking wine and its structure and pairing it with food,” says Crandon. “I also understand how food transforms wine and how wine transforms food. It’s a matter of science, right?”
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“When you start exploring what you can pair with a wine and you consider the structure and flavor of a dish, it becomes completely fascinating,” she notes. Take a pork chop seasoned with just salt and pepper — there are only so many flavors a wine can riff with that. But a pork chop doused in sauce or seasoned with a smarter array of spices? There are layers and layers of flavor a wine can match. “I find the most wow pairings come from taking dishes with multiple spices and textures and matching them with wine,” says Crandon.
Chana masala? You haven’t had the dish unless you’ve paired it with a bright, crisp rosé. Stewed chicken deserves a chilled glass of Chinon and crunchy-spicy-saucy pad thai just screams for Albarino. If you aren’t eating your plantains with a glass of Sauternes, well, what are you doing?
“North America is becoming more and more diverse,” says Crandon. “So we have to start to talk about wine in a more inclusive way — it’s time to pair different cuisines and different ethnicities with wine. That’s when more of us will see ourselves reflected in wine.”
Jerk Chicken and Alsatian Riesling
“I love this pairing,” says Crandon. “Riesling from the Alsace region of France gets extra sun exposure, so you taste the natural acidity and the ripe flavors on the palate from that sun exposure that works so well with the spice. When paired with jerk chicken, it’s a no-brainer, easily perfect pairing.”
Cheese Straws and Champagne
“This is my desert island-pairing,” swears Crandon. “First, start off with those long, doughy straws that we add spice and cheese to and fry. Then sip Champagne — particularly blanc to blanc — and you’ll get that wonderful mouthfeel, acidity and that yeast-meets-yeast flavor. It’s ridiculously good.”
“Last time, we had cheese straws to start off our Christmas dinner, and everyone wanted to save the Champagne for a more special occasion, but I convinced them that these two together were perfect together. Now, it’s what we eat every year.”
Goat Curry and Cabernet Sauvignon
“I love goat curry with any kind of Cabernet Sauvignon made with oak treatment,” says Crandon. “It’s a congruent pairing – in the curry, you’ve got notes of clove and nutmeg and any wine with oak will also impart those same spices and nutmeg flavors. The tannins in the wine help break down the texture of the fattier texture of the goat meat. You wouldn’t expect the wine pairing to work because it’s curry and Cabernet, but that congruence creates such a wonderful feeling on the palate — rich, complex and absolutely lovely. “
Jamaican Callaloo and Albarino
“Callaloo is kind of like spinach,” says Crandon. “The texture is more thick and coarse than spinach, and the veins in callaloo are stronger. So when you’re pairing callaloo, you’re not just pairing it with the flavor, but also the texture and the spices — generally, callaloo is always cooked in something. For all types of callaloo, I love Albarino, because the acidity of the oil really breaks down the texture. The wine also works with the greenness of the vegetable, and flavoring of the callaloo makes the wine slightly less acidic.”
Achar Pickles and Zinfandel
“Achar is a condiment found frequently in the Caribbean and India,” says Crandon. “Usually, we put it in any of our one-pot dishes like rice and meat. It’s made from unripened mangoes, lots of cool spices; Caribbean, and Indian spices, but in the end, it’s very savory and salty.”
“Because the flavor of achar is so strong, you’re going to get a bit of achar in every sip of the wine. So I like something like a Zinfandel — the achar is going to make it taste less extracted. Achar has that crazy salinity happening and the lovely spices of pepper in the zinfandel and the achar work well together. It’s a surprising pairing! Some of my friends think I’m crazy until they try it.”
Okra and Ribolla Gialla
“As a kid, I thought okra was disgusting and slimy,” says Crandon. “But it’s good for my blood, according to doctors, so I eat it. When pairing wine with okra, you’re not only pairing it with the flavor and texture of the fruit (yes, okra is a fruit!) you’re pairing it with the thick skin and inherent sliminess.”
“Ribolla Gialla is very rustic in the bottle, and okra with all that thick skin, slime-y, bitter-sweet notes is rustic on its own. Pair it with Ribolla and you get citrus out of the gate — grapefruit and Meyer lemon notes that break down the sliminess of the okra. If I’m somewhere that serves food I haven’t tried before and I see a Ribolla on the menu, I’m going to order it. It’s a crazy good food wine.”
Pholourie and Pinot Noir
“Think of Pholourie [a Guyanese and Trinidadian split-pea fritter] as a savory donut hole — it’s fried, and flavored with spices and herbs,” says Crandon. “And we dip our pholourie in this sauce called mango sour, made with unripe mango blended down and mashed with spices. It’s delicious. I like to pair the flavors of the pholourie and mango sour with the texture of Pinot Noir. Specifically, cool-climate Pinot Noir works wonderfully, because you’ve got a touch of acidity that breaks down the dough a little, and the red berry notes of the Pinot Noir become brighter and slightly riper.”
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