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in the spirit may 2016

With the abundance of spicy sushi rolls, ghost pepper sauce and extreme spice levels of Buffalo wings now-a-days, I keep fielding questions on how to balance wine with the occasional over-the-top spice. So many times you think you have a great pairing, but upon coating your mouth with the spicy food, the wine either gets lost, or sends you running for a gallon of milk to quickly calm the spice. Fear not! There are beverages out there aside from milk that can ease the pain of the heat. Wine is here to save the day, as always.

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My number one rule for wine and spicy food pairing is to drink something off-dry. Something like a Pinot Gris from Oregon, or a medium-sweet German Riesling can coat your mouth in pleasant fruity sweetness and provide a barrier for the spice. This is my favorite pairing for those spicy sushi rolls. Take Pinot Gris from King Estate of Oregon, for example, paired with a spicy tempura shrimp roll. The wine boasts flavors of tropical fruit and lime zest with a rich body and slight sweetness. The fruit flavors compliment the shrimp and interior of the roll, while the body and sweetness balance out the chili sauce drizzled on top and even stand up to the wasabi placed on top of roll when you kick up the spice a little more. This combination as creates a balance between sweet and spicy.

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Another option is to create the illusion of sweetness. You can trick your palate into the same type of balancing act with an aromatic wine. An Albariño from Spain, or a Torrontes from Argentina can create the same sensation as a slightly sweet wine. Having wonderful tropical fruit aromatics and flavors like these two grapes have can create the perception of being a sweet wine without having the actual presence of sugar. Both are little known wines, should be consumed more due to their ability to pair well with many styles of foods, and amazing refreshing crispness. My personal favorite pairing for this style of wine is with spicy Mexican food. There is a lot of acid in salsas and the marinades that are associated with Mexican food. Both wines can pair with this style of cuisine without tasting too flabby, because their acid levels are very similar. They also tend to be a great value and you can impress your friends with your extended wine library. Calm the spice, and save money? Sounds like a win-win situation.

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When looking to pair a red wine with something spicy try to stick with wines that have lower alcohol and tannin. Both of these components in wine will actually accentuate the heat of the food by creating a drying sensation in your mouth. It allows the spice and heat to take over. A few red grapes that do well with spicy foods are Barbera from Italy and Zinfandel from California. Both of these wines have a bright jammy fruitiness that can lower the heat. Try Michael David’s Earthquake Zinfandel from Lodi, California with a fra diavlo. Not having much tannin in the wine works as a double bonus here. It keeps the spice from the tomato sauce at bay while still giving you a red option to eat with the seafood meal you’ve been craving.

Next time you order something you think may have a little too much spice in it, use wine as your ally to cool the heat.

– Ginger LaSalle. Food & Beverage Assistant Manager and Sommelier at The Greenbrier.

Photo source: @wikeeps on instagram.

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