Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine. Today’s installment: What’s the best kind of wine to drink with spicy food, and can you recommend some great bottles?
For the last year, chef Sean Pharr has headed up New American eats at Chicago's The Bristol, plating a mix of European and Asian fusion via beef belly kimchi fried rice and farfalle with meatballs and black truffles. Meanwhile, GM and wine director Charles Ford commands beverage contributions, curating a Europe and America-heavy list of wines. Below, he considers the harmony between spicy food and grape juice.
“Typically, I like to pair lower alcohol beverages with spicy food, the higher the alcohol the more intense any sort of heat and spice becomes. Pétillant naturel (or pét-nat) wines are great for this! I also like to bring Alsatian whites too, as they're not all sweet, but most of the time very sturdy and dry.
There are a couple of pétillants which I like to pair with spicy food that are available in a few various markets around the country. The first is Brianne Day’s Mamacita, a beautiful pétillant made from 100 percent malvasia. She’s making a huge impact on wine coming from Oregon, specifically the Applegate and Willamette Valleys. This wine is silly good; its tiny little bubbles are perfect to refresh the palate right after a spicy bite of curry or pad Thai or whatever spicy cuisine you happen to be eating. In my case, I like to go hard on the butter chicken with extra basmati and naan.
My second favorite is a bottle we carry at The Bristol by a Greek producer from Ioannina, Domaine Glinavos. They make a beautiful semi-sparkling orange wine made from the debina grape — it's killer! Wines like these two add so much depth to a spicy dinner. Yes, it's acceptable to drink whatever you like when you go out to eat. But, for heaven's sake, change it up once in a while and get out of a groove—challenge your taste buds!
If you don't have a lot of time and are looking to be in and out of a store in about ten minutes, make your way straight to the Alsatian wine section. I like Alsatian wines because many producers will label their wines by level of dryness. Each producer's version of the scale may differ a little bit, but it's a great example of what winemakers are doing to make their product more understandable in the American market. Also, there are several great Alsatian whites out there under $15. Pick any bottle labeled as dry (off-dry if you want a touch of sweetness) from F.E. Trimbach, they are beautiful and true representations of the region's tradition; most likely the best represented in anyone's area as well, next to other producers like: Hugel & Fils, Zind Humbrecht, Emile Beyer, Josmeyer, Albert Mann, Lucien Albrecht, Gustave Lorentz.
Favorite grapes from any of these producers include riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot blanc, and pinot gris. Here's a big hint though, Alsatian pinot gris is wildly different from pinot grigio or pinot gris from other regions in the world. Alsatian pinot gris has muscle, it's got attitude, and it has a backbone with concentration and intensity unmatched by Northern Italy, Slovenia, or the West Coast of the U.S. Alsatian pinot gris has morals, okay?!
- F.E. Trimbach Pinot Gris, Reserve
- Emile Beyer Riesling Tradition
- Hugel Pinot Blanc
- Paul Zinck Gewürztraminer
Now, if you're looking to completely blow away whoever it is that you're sharing your wine with, and being frugal has gone out the window, here's a couple of tasty treats that even I have a hard time refusing. In comparison to these wines, you will most likely taste nothing else like them. Truly unique gems of the wine world: