BBC Good Food Magazine
It may not sting like chilli, but you can find heat in a glass
Must-try wines with a hint of spice
Spice and wine are not always the best of friends. Sometimes when you drink wine with chilli-rich dishes, you can barely taste the wine at all. But I can’t order drinks in an Indian restaurant without thinking of my old friend and TV wine pundit Joe Wadsack who once agreed to eat an exceptionally hot curry in front of a rolling camera. His strategy was to go as fast as he could. ‘I thought if I could get the food down really quickly, I’d be able to finish it off before the pain kicked in.’ That went well until he did finish and a tsunami of pain hit from his capsaicin receptors. Letting out a noisy howl, he begged the waiters standing by to bring him a drink: a lassi, to be precise, because milk or yogurt is the best balm for a mouth raging under chilli’s fire.
Alas, the waiters were too well-trained in the art of solicitously enquiring as to whether he might like a plain lassi or a mango lassi, and salt or sweet, to just pour gallons of the stuff straight into his burning mouth, leaving him sweating and screaming for his mother as they tortured him with kindness.
The message is clear: if you want to tame the burn of a chilli, the best drink is dairy. If you want to mitigate the burn with wine, then there are options, too, but they are nothing like as effective: drink sweeter and/or go for bubbles. The match works both ways: sweeter wines, and wines with bubbles, stand up better against chilli-spice. That’s to say, with a sweeter wine you still get to taste the fruitiness which, in a dry wine, often disappears when you eat chilli. But what if you want to go the other way about? What if you’re looking for spicy flavours in the wine not in the food?
I’m not going to claim that you can find a wine that will sting like chilli but there are flavours we describe as ‘spicy’ that can be found in a wine glass. Often, these come from wine that is oaked as the woody flavour can resemble some of the more woody spices – think nutmeg or mace. But sometimes the spicy note is found in the grape itself. For instance, the white Austrian grape grüner veltliner is often said to taste of white pepper. Syrah – shiraz, in Australia – sometimes smells of crushed black peppercorns, a similarity that scientists have proved is grounded in fact not fancy, as both syrah wines and black peppercorns contain an odour molecule called rotundone (also found in oregano and marjoram), which imparts the flavour we recognise as peppery. Then there’s sotolon, an aroma compound found in curries and in particular in fenugreek, the pungent curry spice. Sotolon is also found in wines that have aged. So, the next time someone claims their wine smells spicy, they might actually have a very good point.
sometimes the spicy note in wine is found in the grape itself