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The art of pairing wines with spicy food — bringing out the best of both worlds

Wine expert and salesman Joshua Wesson doesn’t hide the fact that he was born in Queens, New York, and grew up in Brooklyn, the product of "a downwardly mobile family."

Nor does he hide the fact that he was raised on a diet of battered, deep fried, and fatty foods, or that he acquired most of his knowledge of wine while working in a restaurant in northern New Jersey.

That’s because he was also raised on wine in the European tradition, and learned to enjoy wine without pretensions – to him, wine was just a drink, something to wash down your dinner with. Some wines were better than others, but none of the wines that graced his own table in those days were what you would call even moderately expensive.

"Some wines would bring out the sweetness of the ketchup, and some would bring out the tartness," remembers Wesson.

His mother was also heavily into ethnic cuisine and loved to try spicy foods. Through trial and error, Wesson learned that certain wines would taste better with Thai food, and other wines would taste better with Mexican. One combination would be refreshing, while another would make you feel like someone lit a fire inside your head.

"It’s not like going to France and pulling into a little roadside restaurant, and ordering a bottle of wine that grew up next to the vegetables on your plate, where the match is a priori," Wesson explained. "Ethnic food, on the other hand, has been largely ignored. Countries like Mexico and Thailand and India don’t have a wine tradition. So what are the people eating Mexican and Thai food drinking? Beer."

Wesson was in Whistler once again as part of the annual Cornucopia Food and Wine Celebration, and once again his seminars took the gourmet low road in promoting the enjoyment of wine for the humble masses, rather than the flashy elite. His second seminar of the festival was called Spicy Ethnic Cuisine: Is There Life After Beer? and featured five different spicy dishes and five varieties of wine.

If you thought that topic was odd, his first seminar was called Fast Food, Fast Wine, where foods like chicken strips, sausage pizza and ice cream were matched with inexpensive wines, and predictably it was sold out.

Wesson believes that wine can complement any culinary experience, whether it’s a five-course meal or a hamburger combo. He even helped to found a chain of stores in the U.S. called Best Cellars that groups wine by taste rather than by region or price – all the wines he stocks are less than $15 a bottle anyway.

Although there is a certain amount of empirical experimentation involved in pairing wines with spicy cuisine, there are a few general rules you can follow when making your selection.

The first is to observe a wine, it’s colour, odour and taste.

Red wines generally get lighter with age and white wines generally get darker. The darker a wine is, the more concentrated the flavour; the more concentrated the flavour, the more likely your wine will clash, overpower or heat up the spicy food.

Smelling a wine can also tell you a lot about a wine, says Wesson. "The tongue is a crude instrument. We can taste apple, but we can’t taste the appleness of the apple, the pearness of the pear, just different levels of sweet, salty, bitterness and sourness."

Our sense of smell plays a large factor in our enjoyment of food and wine because it adds flavour, and because, like other animals, we intrinsically remember smells. Ethnic cuisine, especially the spicy varieties, tend to stand out by smell alone.

On the subject of taste, Wesson warns that though a wine may taste good on its own, it may not necessarily taste good with your food. It’s also a very subjective sense. What you really want to do is taste the wine with the food in mind, because in the end it’s the pairing that’s really important. Things to look for include high alcohol content, fruitiness, sweetness, bitterness.

High alcohol content has a burning effect on its own – what Wesson calls "the Vick’s Vapourub Factor" – that doesn’t go well with spicy, hot foods. It’s like pouring kerosene on a fire; "People will burst into flames," he says.

Wine ratings are also irrelevant. "I don’t like the 100-point scale at all. I don’t think we should rate wines the same way we were humiliated back in school. Besides, I’ve learned you can make any wine taste better when you get naked and jump into a hot tub."

Although most people don’t like wine that’s too fruity, these wines often go well with spicy food. Sweet wines can also be good, providing that the sweetness doesn’t overpower the spice. Bitter wines that are high in tannin from the skin and seeds, are not recommended – "A good match should leave you feeling refreshed," says Wesson.

Pairing with Sushi:

Very few people order wine in a sushi restaurant, says Wesson, because there are a lot of factors to consider – the spiciness of the Wasabe, the saltiness of the Soya sauce, the oiliness of the Tempura. "It’s easier just to order a beer."

For this kind of food, a sparkling wine is one of your best options.

"You could just plunk down for sparkling wine, and serve it with all your spicy foods and it would work, although it would work with some foods better than others," explains Wesson. The carbonation has a cooling effect in your mouth. Sparkling wines are also more acidic, which tends to cut the oil, and they have a strong fruity flavour because they are usually made with ripe grapes.

Sparkling wines are usually more expensive than other varieties because of the care and extra production involved in producing them.

"It just costs more because essentially you have to make it twice. You make your wine, then you add yeast and sugar which produces carbon dioxide and alcohol," says Wesson. "It’s a lot more work."

The first dish matched a California roll with a Red Rooster Sprakling Wine from the Okanagan Valley. It was a mixed vintage, using wine from two different growing seasons, most likely 1999 and 2000. It also has a moderate alcohol content at 12.5 per cent, but doesn’t burn at all. It sells for about $22 per bottle in B.C.

Pairing with Samosa

The Samosa looked like an egg roll, but Wesson says he was pressed for time. The important thing to keep in mind is that it’s a deep fried pocket filled with vegetables and eastern spices. The oil and the salt are fairly dominant.

The wine he chose was a Casal Garcia Vinho Verde from Portugal, a steal at around $12.

"This is one of my favourites because it goes with absolutely everything," says Wesson. It’s slightly carbonated, and light with no trace of oak or tannin. There is a pleasant green apple taste, and it’s light in alcohol at 9 per cent.

"If you were a surgeon you could drink a bottle of this at lunch and not worry about your procedure that afternoon," he jokes.

The Vinho Verde goes with salty foods, oily and deep-fried foods, and anything spicy because it’s subtle and refreshing. In fact, food actually brings out the flavours in the wine in a pleasant contrast.

Pairing with Shrimp Satay

Thai food is notoriously spicy, to the point where many people can’t eat it. But those who can eat it generally love it.

For the Satay Shrimp, Wesson selected a Gray Monk 2000 Pinot Blanc, also from the Okanagan Valley.

The grapes are plucked late, "crushed gently," and aged in oak barrels, but with nowhere near the amount of care that would go into a Chardonnay.

"It starts off sweet and goes sour," says Wesson. "The aftertaste is dry, and there a bit of grapefruit bitter at the end, but in a good way."

There’s no carbonation, so the 11.5 per cent alcohol content is more noticeable, but it’s still refreshing.

Because spice and fruitiness tend to go well together, like a mango chutney, or pineapple salsa, the effect is contrasting and complementary all at once, says Wesson.

Pairing with Szechuan Beef

Because contrast can be a good thing, a sweet Lake Breeze 2000 Ehrenfelser, from the Okanagan, is needed to offset the spiciness and thick flavour of the meat.

"It can be sweet, as long as it’s not cloying," says Wesson. The Szechuan sauce is sweet as well, but it’s not the dominant flavour.

Matching spicy with spicy, sweet with sweet, and fruity with fruity generally amplifies the overpowering flavour, hiding the other flavours in your food and wine. A good balance of dominant flavours, however, will allow the other flavours to emerge.

"Wine is to be chewed," says Wesson, "not chugged. If we weren’t supposed to enjoy our food, we’d boil it down until it tasted like putty – and then we’d be British."

You can also forget the old adage that white wine goes with fish, red wine goes with meet, "and when in doubt, drink beer." According to Wesson, that’s a bit of snobbery concocted by nobles in France who bring 12 pieces of cutlery to the table with every meal. The rules go out the window when you’re talking about a $16 bottle of Lake Breeze that was fermented last year.

Pairing with Szechuan Pork Balls

Although the Rosemount Estate 2001 Grenache Shiraz from Australia was a more full-bodied wine than any of the previous bottles – "like a melted wildberry Jello" – Wesson paired it with the pork balls to illustrate another unconventional idea; that red wines are better chilled.

"Nothing tastes good at room temperature. Not orange juice, not coffee, not milk, not soft drinks, and especially not wine," says Wesson, who put the Grenache Shiraz in the fridge for half an hour before the seminar. "That’s another old world idea that’s still lying around from the days when they didn’t have refrigerators and drank everything at room temperature."

Although this wine had a higher alcohol content and smelled strongly of fruits, the chill made it a refreshing complement to the heavy pork balls.

Pairing with Mexican Chicken

Mexican spices are a little different in that they are hotter, set in slower, and burn a lot longer.

For this job, Wesson recommended another sparkling wine, a Bannock Station 2000 Sparkling Shiraz from Australia.

"This is one of my favourite sparkling wines, and I really think it could kick any soft drink’s ass," says Wesson. "Although the alcohol is quite high, around 14 per cent, it’s the perfect complement for just about anything. It’s really quite amazing how well this goes with food."

No matter what you eat, Wesson is confident that there’s a match out there somewhere. You’ll know it, "when the wine makes the food taste better, and the food makes the wine taste better."

You can read more about Wesson and the Best Cellars approach at the company Web site,