To say that food and wine pairing can be complicated would be something of an understatement. In order to become truly proficient in this refined and multi-layered art, it can take years of study… and even then, it’s by no means a precise science.
Luckily for the majority of us, however, the basics behind the principles of matching dishes with wine are actually fairly straightforward, and nine times out of ten – with a bit of savoir-faire and a willingness to experiment and innovate – you can come up with pleasing results which really hit the spot. It might not be a classic or absolute and exact pairing… but as long as it works and brings the right results, who actually cares?
Harmonies and Contrasts
The key to food and wine pairing success is to seek out those principal flavours in the food, and then to find a wine which either harmonises with those flavours, or provides a satisfying contrast on the palate. When you’re preparing a dish which contains a hit of spice or a strong, herbal note, those condiments are often going to be aspect of the dish to focus on when searching for an appropriate wine pairing. Think about it – if you’re serving up a dish of jerk chicken, a Thai curry, or something like white fish in parsley sauce, it’s the herbs and spices which are really going to make the biggest impact on your palate. As such, that’s the direction you’ll need to face when looking around for the ideal bottle of vino to offer alongside your food.
Let’s take a look at some popular spices and spice mixes, and think about which wines are going to bring out the best in them. Remember – don’t be afraid to experiment yourselves, and go off on your own spice and wine pairing adventures. Who knows? Maybe you’ll uncover something that fits perfectly, and which nobody has figured out before.
Classic Spices and Wine Pairing
● Black Pepper
For many, no meal would be complete without a healthy sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper. If your dish contains a hit of peppercorns, or a strong, peppery flavour, it’s best to pair it with a lush, ripe red – something like a Merlot, Grenache, Cotes du Rhone or Malbec.
Cinnamon is a delicious component to many savoury dishes, such as Moroccan tagines and southern French and Spanish stews. In these cases, pair it with a Rioja, or a New World Pinot Noir. When cinnamon is used in sweet dishes and desserts (especially with baked apple), it works brilliantly with off-dry and late harvest Riesling.
This highly aromatic spice is found in various cuisines all over the world, not least in the flavourful curries of India and the Middle East. We find that if cumin is a principal flavour in your dish, it pairs superbly with sharp, citrusy white wines, like a Vermentino or Assyrtiko.
● Fresh Ginger
A key component of southeast Asian cooking, ginger has often left sommeliers scratching their heads in confusion. If your dish contains a fiery punch of fresh ginger, try pairing it with Gewurztraminer… or if all else fails, a classic dry Champagne.
● Dried Chillies
Smoky pimento, bright and piquant birdseyes, chipotle… dried chillies can really add a beautiful depth to almost any dish. They need a fairly bold and boisterous red wine to stand up to, however – no shrinking violets allowed! Pair chilli dishes with Tempranillo, Shiraz, or Carmenere for truly outstanding results.
Exotic Spices and Spice Blends
Heady, luxurious, and often a little confusing on the palate, saffron is a divisive spice which isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea. When used well (and sparingly), however, it’s truly divine. This spice deserves an equally luxurious and well-bodied wine… what could be more fitting than an elegant and sensuous Viognier?
When Christmas comes around, few things beat the flavour of roasted ham studded with cloves. This festive spice – when part of a pork or red meat dish – seems to pair particularly well with Portuguese reds from the Douro. When spicing up a chicken dish, it’s beautiful alongside a Viognier or full-bodied Chardonnay.
● Chinese Five Spice
This spice mix had a real renaissance moment over the past decade, what with pulled pork and contemporary Asian street food being on seemingly every menu from Berlin to Brisbane. We reckon it pairs best with a lush Pinot Noir, especially when adding an aromatic punch to roast duck.
● Garam Masala
This spice blend is the crowning glory of Indian and Pakistani cuisine, and most chefs have their own secret blends which they’ll use as a base for almost any dish. It matches nicely with bright whites like Pinot Grigio, as well as sharp and summery rosé wines such as those you’d find in Provence.
● Piri Piri
Portugal’s great gift to the world is piri-piri, a fiery spice mix which works utterly perfectly when rubbed over chicken and cooked on a smouldering flame. We’d recommend matching your piri-piri dishes with a New World Sauvignon Blanc, or something similarly versatile like a Verdejo.
● Jerk Seasoning
Who could fail to fall in love with the fiery flavours of Jamaican jerk seasoning? Whether smeared over chicken thighs, slathered onto fish, or rubbed into pork, it’s a powerfully overwhelming flavour, and one which really needs a fresh white wine to cut through all that heat. Try it with an Alsatian Riesling, Gewurztraminer, or Pinot Gris – it really is a match made in heaven!