If you’ve heard it’s a bad idea to pair high-alcohol wines with spicy-hot foods, read on… you may be surprised.
At Team Great Big Reds, we eat a lot of spicy-hot foods, and we love to pair them with higher-alcohol, lower-acidity wines that we call ‘Great Big Reds’. (See recommendations for syrah/shiraz and zinfandel below.)
So What’s the “Science”?
(We promise to keep it simple!)
Basically…. You know when you put something in your mouth that’s way too temperature-hot and a bunch of nerve endings scream PAIN?
Well, there are a lot of different types of nerves in your mouth, but the exact same ones that warn you about hot temperature are the ones that fire when spicy-hot food is in your mouth. Chili peppers have a chemical called ‘capsaicin’ (kap-SAY-ih-sin) that does it. Your mouth isn’t temperature hot — necessarily — but your brain gets the message: HOT HOT HOT.
Why Do High-alcohol Wines Pair Well?
When your brain gets that HOT HOT HOT signal from spicy food, your mouth isn’t actually temperature hot, so adding something cold won’t help. (Ice water is about the worst thing you could do, by the way!)
The trick to soothing the pain messages is to separate the capsaicin from the nerve endings. How? Milk works. Sugar works. Non-spicy food works — un-spicy rice, for example. Alcohol works — at least in a certain range. We’re suggesting full-bodied red wine in the ballpark of 15% alcohol by volume, not 150-proof moonshine. Basically, alcohol acts as a solvent to the capsaicin, and whooshes it away from your pain sensors.
So… if you’re eating very spicy-hot food, high-alcohol wines are going to reduce the pain signals and make for a more pleasant meal.
It’s not just science and test tubes in laboratories. We’ve been eating spicy foods with Great Big Reds for decades. The spicier-hot the food, the more alcohol we like in the wine. Also: more flavor! We want enough flavor in the wine to keep up with the flavor of the spicy-hot dish.
I guess I should note that I’m not talking about stunts with absurdly spicy-hot food. I’m just saying if you like spicy-hot food as a regular kind of thing, Great Big Reds are likely to pair well.
The photograph above is one of our favorite treats: Molly Dooker’s The Boxer — very high alcohol — shown with spicy-hot beef sausage.
Madeline Puckette, of WineFolly.com did a test and wrote:
“We were surprised to discover that a very full-bodied dry red wine with high alcohol worked rather well with spicy food. We would recommend a dry red wine with richly spiced meats, such as cumin-pepper ribs or spicy barbeque, which works as long as the wine is bold enough to stand up to the food.”
I don’t eat meat very often, but I often make very spicy-hot tomato sauce with pasta, and Great Big Reds work — er — great! I aim to make the sauce a little hotter than the pasta can keep up with, so that the wine balances out the rest. If I overdue the spice, I’ll eat a bit of chocolate afterward.
Regarding ice-water: since spicy-hotness is not about temperature, the coldness of the ice doesn’t help. The bad news, though, is that the water will whoosh the capsaicin all around your mouth so that now every single pain nerve in your mouth will scream HOT to your brain. Step away from the ice water!
For Great Big Reds that are high alcohol and fairly easy to find in grocery stores, etc., here are a few recommendations:
– Molly Dooker, The Boxer
– Michael David Winery 6th Sense Syrah
– St. Francis Old Vine Zinfandel
Note that The Boxer is 100% syrah/shiraz, but the others all have some petite sirah blended in for extra oomph.
More on the Science
Here’s a Wired.com article by Jonah Lehrer explaining the impact of capsaicin… with a bit more scientific terminology and detail than I used above:
(Content warning: big words, etc.)
“It turns out that capsaicin – the active ingredient in spicy food – binds to a special class of vanilloid receptor inside our mouth called VR1 receptors. After capsaicin binds to these receptors, the sensory neuron is depolarized, and it sends along a signal indicating the presence of spicy stimuli.
“But here’s the strange part: VR1 receptors weren’t designed to detect capsaicin. They bind spicy food by accident. The real purpose of VR1 receptors is thermoreception, or the detection of heat. This means that they are supposed to prevent us from consuming food that will burn our sensitive flesh. (That’s why our VR1 receptors are clustered in our tongue, mouth and skin.) As a result, when the receptors are activated by capsaicin, the sensation we experience is indelibly linked to the perception of temperature, to the feeling of eating something near the boiling point of water. But that pain is just an illusory side-effect of our confused neural receptors. There is nothing “hot” about spicy food.”
Cheers to Science!