Wine Pairings: Big Flavors Need Big Wines

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"Loud" flavors -- hot, spicy and/or acidic -- can be tricky to pair with wine. There's no faster way to obliterate the nuances of a wine than to serve it with a dish whose flavors will jump out and make those subtleties disappear.

Still, there's no reason to let such potential peril spook you. Here are some guidelines to make the matches work.


The palate falsely perceives the sharpness of piquancy as "hot," so it's natural to seek cooling relief. As a rule, avoid wines that are high in alcohol, oak and tannin, which can either clash or just fan the flames. For the best pairing, consider the specific ingredient:

Fresh chili peppers: As a general rule, the fresh vegetal flavors of chilies are a better match with white wines than with reds. With dishes featuring jalapeños, New World sauvignon blancs tend to pair best; both herbaceous and grapefruit-driven styles are useful in pairing with similarly flavored dishes. When fresh chilies are served as part of Thai curries, which often feature sweet coconut milk and spicy ginger, we prefer off-dry, spicy and aromatic whites, most often Riesling.

Dried chili peppers: Their smoky earthiness tends to go better with red wines. The combination of red wine and scallops may seem frightening, but that proved to be one of our favorite pairings of the year when we visited Janos Restaurant in Tucson in March. Chef-owner Janos Wilder matched seared diver sea scallops with Spanish chorizo, chipotle Muscat sauce and candied orange zest with a fruity Spanish red: a pinot noir-like 2005 Las Rocas de San Alejandro El Renegado Garnacha ($10 at MacArthur Beverages). With its own hint of smoke, it perfectly mirrored the smoky notes of the dish.

Brian Cook, wine director at Redwood in Bethesda, serves a fruity wine with the restaurant's mildly spicy braised short-rib chili seasoned with ancho chilies. Among the possibilities are a pinot noir, such as Serenity Pinor Noir from California's Central Coast, and a fuller-bodied shiraz with mild tannins, such as Cat Amongst the Pigeons Nine Lives Shiraz from Australia's Barossa Valley.

Horseradish: The choice depends on the dish, of course, but we lean toward bubbles. A non-vintage champagne or rosé champagne will help cleanse the palate. Other high-acid wines work well, too, and with a horseradish-based shrimp cocktail, we've had the best luck pairing with New Zealand sauvignon blanc. If you're the one cooking, add cream to horseradish to make it more wine-friendly. We love the combination of a rare steak with horseradish cream sauce and a fruity, low-tannin merlot.

Hot mustard: This condiment is not only hot but acidic, so make sure the wine has its own acidity to stand up to the food. Mustard is a natural with sausages: With white-meat sausages think white wine (Riesling or unoaked chardonnay); with red-meat sausages think fruity reds (such as Beaujolais, pinot noir or zinfandel).

Wasabi: Because William Washington, manager of Blue Duck Tavern in the West End, likes to pair to a dish's region of origin, foods with fiery wasabi notes lead him to Japanese rice wine. His first thought when pairing wasabi-accented sushi, or even a miso-and-wasabi-crusted piece of salmon, is sake.

Although we love sake at least as much as the next oenophile, rosé champagne is another delicious way to go with that wasabi-crusted salmon. A pinot noir-based sparkler will complement the fish, and the bubbles will help cleanse the palate of the wasabi's bite.


When the perceived heat on the palate is the result of actual spiciness -- as in Indian cuisine, for example -- remember that the root of the word "Gewuerztraminer" is "spice." Indeed, the fruitiness, spice and hint of sweetness in Gewuerztraminer and similar varietals such as off-dry Riesling play beautifully against the spice of aromatic Indian dishes. We'd steer red wine lovers toward a fruity zinfandel.


Dishes high in acidity, whether from citrus or vinegar, can be overpowering. So remember the maxim "acid loves acid," and pair high-acid foods with high-acid wines. For example, we've enjoyed seviche with a virtual around-the-world tour of high-acid whites, from champagne to New Zealand sauvignon blanc to Trocken Riesling to Spanish albariño.

Every one of those matches was, if you'll pardon the Halloween pun, bewitching.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of "The Flavor Bible" and "What to Drink With What You Eat," can be reached through their Web site,, or at Their Pairings column appears the last Wednesday of the month.

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