Conventional wine wisdom tells us to pair sweet — or at least sweeter — wines with spicy foods. The heat in the food cancels the residual sugar and makes the wine taste drier. That means Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Or maybe an amontillado or oloroso sherry, a category of wine too often ignored.
That wisdom is not wrong. (Wine hack: You can never go wrong with Riesling.) But here’s another sleeper wine pairing with spicy foods you may not have thought of: rosé. This came to me as I was scarfing down Peter Chang’s dry-fried eggplant at his restaurant in Rockville, rinsing my palate with a cheap pink from southern France. The heat, salt and numbing spiciness of the Sichuan seasoning magnified the fruit of the rosé in such a way that made the wine seem bigger, more expansive than it was on its own.
Rosé is the wine of summer, and, it seems, the wine of the moment. We suck it down in hot weather to slake our thirsts, dispel the doldrums caused by humidity and revive our palates. Conventional wisdom says rosé is great by itself or with garlicky or salty foods, such as hummus and olives, those Mediterranean antipasti meant to take the edge off our hunger before the serious meal begins. But rosé’s fruitiness — its strawberry and melon flavors, tinged with herbs — is also an ideal match for heat. Not just summer’s heat, but food’s heat as well.
And rosé does not just pair with Sichuan cuisine. I’ve liked it with other spicy foods, including Thai, Tex-Mex and Indian. Depending on the protein or heaviness of the dish, you might prefer a heartier rosé, one with a trace of heft or tannin, but I’ve found that even light, ephemeral pinks work well across the spice range. The heat somehow elevates the wine’s fruitiness.
Fruit, not sugar, seems to be the key. Remember, fruit flavors are inherently sweet, and even dry wines have a chimera of sweetness when they feature flavors of ripe peach, berries or other fruits. That covers Riesling and Gewürztraminer — but also pinot noir, Beaujolais or barbera, three food-friendly reds.
Choosing a wine for dinner should not be stressful, but in our inherent insecurity about wine, we make it so. Wine can be expensive, after all, and we don’t want to waste our money on an unfortunate pairing. So wine pairing advice has become a cottage industry.
Even the McCormick spice company has a food-and-wine pairing guide on its website. It offers sound advice, such as pairing tannic red wines with fatty beef dishes such as steak. Hot tip: Match the wine to the seasonings as much as the protein.
Food and Wine magazine enforces the law with “15 Rules for Great Wine and Food Pairings.” There’s good advice here, too, such as pairing champagne with salty dishes, sauvignon blanc with tart dressings and sauces, and gruner veltliner with dishes that feature fresh herbs and veggies. There’s even an unexpected recommendation of dry rosé with grilled cheese sandwiches. I’m going to have to try that.
Wine Spectator magazine offers six basic tips, including the obvious (drink whatever you like with whatever you want to eat) and the more complex (ranking different styles of wine by weight and body).
Fiona Beckett, a British wine writer, has a website devoted to the subject, called Matching Food & Wine. Her beginner’s guide wisely advises us to consider other items on the plate rather than just the main ingredient and includes a separate link on pairing wines with various pasta sauces. She also offers recipes with specific wine suggestions. Beckett agrees that rosé is extremely food-friendly and offers a comprehensive pairing guide based on different shades and styles of pink.
Beckett likes medium-dry rosés, such as white zinfandel, with spicy dishes. That echoes the conventional wisdom of pairing sweetness with heat. I’d like to share a bottle of dry rosé with her, along with some Sichuan food.