Pairing Wine & Spices

Pairing Spices and Wine

When it comes to spicy foods, there is a tendency to autopilot toward beer to refresh and recharge our awakened palates. But beer isn’t the only option – wine can often bring out the best a spicy meal has to offer. The trick is finding the perfect pairing to complement every aspect of your dish, while tampering the newfound fire on your tongue. We spoke with Erika Tocco, Wine Director from Vin Room in Calgary, about the best approach to pairing wine with a spicy dish. 

The Spice Challenge

When it comes to pairing wines with any food, Erika stresses the importance of balance–matching weight, contrasting tannins and equaling the fruit of the wine to the flavors of the dish–to create a perfectly highlighted connection. Ideally, all the elements of the wine and meal will come together without one overpowering the other.

Adding spice to the mix can complicate things, but who doesn’t love a challenge? Since spice can be the stand out element in a recipe, it’s vital to consider what it adds to the final meal when selecting your wine. Some spices (think cumin or smoked paprika) can overwhelm both wines and palates. To counteract this, each spice’s unique flavor profile should be at the forefront of a pairing to find a perfect match that lets keynote flavors take the stage.

As always, there is a golden rule when pairing spice and wine: take a pass on high alcohol wines. “They literally burn the throat when consumed with spicy foods,” Erika notes. Tannic and acidic wines should also be avoided, instead favoring sweet, aromatic, and off dry wines, like Rieslings and Gewurztraminers.


Perfect Connections

If you already have the perfect meal planned, Erika passes along her recommendations for a few different spice blend and wine pairings:

  • Lemon and herb: “Tropical fruit and a slight oak finish would contrast nicely with the acid of the lemony rub,” Erika notes, and recommends Chenin Blanc from the Loire, or Viognier.
  • Cajun spice: When it comes to one of the spiciest combos, Erika loves “an off dry Riesling all the way. Crisp and sweet.”
  • Santa Fe spice rub: For white proteins such as chicken and fish, Erika suggests looking for an aromatic white, like Pinot Blanc or Malvasia.  For beef, a juicy red that has low tannins and tons of fruit, like a simple Beaujolais, Valpolicella or GSM from France, is best. These reds can also be enjoyed chilled.
  • Thai or Asian blends: When it comes to Asian flavours, chilled sake is King. But crisp white wines, like a Muscadet from the Loire, are also recommended. Look for a lighter wine that can cut through the thickness of the sauce, or an aromatic white like Gewurztraminer.
  • Chili spice: Chilis tend to have a bite towards the end of the palate, so look for a wine that doesn’t interfere with those notes, such as a fruity red brimming with lots of red and blue fruit that is neither tannic nor acidic. A Beaujolais or Valpolicella are recommended. A Mencia from Spain that can be earthy and slightly dirty, thereby complimenting the savory characteristics of the rub, is another excellent choice.
  • Adobe blend: “With smoky rubs comes smoky earthy wines,” notes Erika. She suggests Shiraz and Syrahs that can play up to the smoky element and meaty nature of adobe chilies. Also look for softer merlots and reds that are softer in tannin and have more oak integrated in the wines.
  • Moroccan: To complement characteristic Moroccan spices, Erika suggests a softer white with a sweeter edge. Go-to bottles include Malvasias, and Pinot Blancs from Alsace. Alternately, try a sparkling wine, like a Cremant from either Burgundy or Alsace, to help accentuate the earthy notes of the spices.
  • Indian curries: When it comes to spices with a fiery kick, it’s best to avoid a high alcohol wine as they bring out the heat even more. Erika suggests avoiding red wines all together, depending on the heat of the curry. Instead, opt for Alsatian, German Rieslings, or off dry aromatic white blends from Canada. Moscatos from Italy and sweeter versions of Prosecco, such as Canaletto Prosecco, or Massolino Moscato, also pair nicely with curries.


The bottom line? Don’t be afraid to reach for a bottle of wine next time you turn up the heat in the kitchen. Properly paired, there’s no better match.