Even if you do not know very much about pairing wine and food you might have heard that wine merchants often recommend Riesling with Asian or other spicy food. Or you might have come across a few wine labels that had similar suggestions. While certain wine labels do praise a wine as compatible with pretty much any food ('This wine goes well with salads, chicken, fish and various meats.'), there is indeed a connection between some spicy food and Riesling, especially sweeter Riesling. I will not exhaust this topic tonight, but I will give an example (with recipe) to illustrate how and why sweet (Riesling) and spicy (food) can go together, based on what may be the most important rule of food and wine pairing: match a wine with the sauce (not with the meat). So here it comes, a semi-sweet Riesling from the Mosel and pasta with a chilli-carrot sauce.
Before we have a look at this particular pairing, a few general words about this topic. When it comes to matching food and wine, many people still stick to the basic rule: white wine with fish (and perhaps chicken), red wine with meat. While this is not wrong as such, it is at best a half truth. Just think about the many different ways to cook meat - you can eat it raw, with a fresh lemon sauce or as a robust stew with a red wine sauce. The same goes for wine - white wines can come with 9% or 15% alcohol, can be light as a feather or heavy with oak and aromas of roasted wood. Instead of sticking to the above rule it is much better to think about bringing together aromas, flavours and styles. For this it is key to look at the sauce as it has much more influence here than the type of meat on your plate.
This lesson is even more important when you deal with a really spicy sauce - the more spice you get, the more it dominates the dish and the more you need to tune the wine to the spice, not the meat/vegetable. To a certain extent the choice of wine depends on the effect you are after. Higher levels alcohol, it turns out, emphasise spiciness, perhaps more than you might want to. Against the international trend I prefer wines with lower alcohol level anyway and I like my wine to somewhat balance (not over-emphasise) the spiciness. Because of this I tend to go for lighter wines with spicy food. More important though is the pleasant tension between spiciness and sweetness. These two kids play together very well (just think sweet chilli sauce), creating a very lively combination. The spiciness balances the sweetness very well, which can make a sweet wine appear almost fruity-dry. As a general rule: the spicier the food, the sweeter the wine.
To make this a little less theoretical let's look at the promised example: a semi-sweet German Riesling and pasta with a chill-carrot sauce. Here are some of the ingredients:
For this recipe you will need: spaghetti or spaghettini; carrots; garlic; chillies; spring onions; olive oil; tomatoes; pumpkin seeds; a few basil leaves; salt; sugar; balsamic vinegar; ground pepper.
Roast the pumpkin seeds in a pan (careful, they burn easily). Wash and then chop carrots, spring onions and chillies. Heat olive oil in a pan and add chopped garlic, a little later the carrots and chillies - sear for a minute or so on high heat, then add salt and some water and steam with the lid closed.
After five minutes, add the chopped spring onions and steam five minutes more. In the mean time, skin your tomatoes (this is fairly easy if you plunge them into boiling water for 30-60s and immediately after that into cold water), remove the stems and chop. Add to the carrots and simmer for another ten minutes. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar and a little sugar. While this goes on, cook your pasta to taste. When everything is ready, pour the sauce over the pasta, add black pepper, roughly chopped basil and the pumpkin seeds - et voilà.
Depending on how many chillies you used you may end up with a mildly spicy or very spicy dish. I went for medium-hot and chose my wine accordingly. My choice was a semi-sweet, fresh and light wine as it is typical for Riesling from the German Mosel region:
This Riesling, made by the winemaker Eva Clüsserath, is very light in terms of alcohol (8.5%) and semi-sweet (45g of residual sugar per litre, more on the upper limit for semi-sweet one, but I can assure you it does not taste overly sweet). It mixes mineral, herb, peach, pineapple and green apple aromas and flavours and is very easy to drink, especially as (just a hint of) bitter and some good acidity balance the sweetness. (read the full review)
And now the two together! The first sip of the wine is a delight, lots of fruit and yummy sweetness make me want to have more. Then the food: fresh and spicy, it gives a very good contrast to the wine. Interestingly, with the second sip the wine seems a lot drier, still fruity and very fresh, but only mildly sweet, while it smooths the spiciness a little and adds an additional fruitiness to it. An excellent match that made me very happy.