My Scottish grandmother kept exactly one spice in her kitchen: cinnamon. Today, such minimalism is almost unthinkable. We've become a country enticed by spice, fearless in the realm of the fiery and driven in our search for flavor drama. If there is a current running through contemporary cooking, it is surely this: the bolder the better.
Just as food is getting bolder and sassier, wines are, too.
And since the wine universe is ever expanding, there are more flavorful options from which to choose than ever before -- from the lip-smackingly juicy red wines of the South of France to the outrageously tropical white wines of New Zealand.
Still, finding the perfect wine to go with a well-seasoned pork chop is one thing; finding the right match for a pork tenderloin howling with Jamaican jerk spices is quite another. Once the degree of spice gets bumped up to the level evidenced in our Caribbean Cooking Class, you'll need to have a few good matching strategies, or the wine will end up tasting like a generic liquid and not much else. After lots of experimentation, here are the best strategies I've found for pairing wines with bold, spicy foods.
1. Opt for just-as-bold red wines. This is the logical first plan of attack. Spices build on one another and create fascinating flavor dynamics, so a lively wine sets up an intriguing contrast to spices in a bold dish. If you're thinking French, try wines labeled Cotes-du-Rhone, Gigondas, or Vacqueyras. Otherwise, try a spicy, juicy California Zinfandel.
2. Opt for highly aromatic wines. This is what most wine professionals and wine-savvy chefs do. Highly aromatic wines have a tantalizing way of balancing spiciness, and the four best choices are all white: Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Riesling, and Viognier. All of these grape varieties are made into dry as well as semidry wines. But don't be afraid of a hint of sweetness, because it sets up a great flavor counterpoint when paired against spices.
3. Consider sparkling wines. All those bubbles bursting on your palate are sensational when you savor them in the context of a spicy dish. California makes some fantastic examples, many of which cost $13 to $18 -- less than some Chardonnays.
4. Focus on acidity. A fresh, crisp, high-acid white wine served with a spicy meal cleanses your palate and puts you on a sort of culinary seesaw: A sip of the wine makes you want a bite of the food, and a bite of the food makes you want a sip of the wine. Some of the most exciting high-acid white wines today are New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, with personality to spare.
5. Think pink. The idea that rose wines are unsophisticated and uninteresting is totally wrong. Europeans drink roses by the bucket all summer long because they're fruity, bold, and refreshing. They also make great partners for highly flavored dishes. California, France, and Spain all make lots of roses, and most are a steal to boot.
6. Look out for oak and tannin. Most Chardonnays are very oaky because they've been aged in wooden barrels. When you drink them with spicy foods, that oakiness turns unpleasantly dry, bitter, and harsh. Similarly, wines high in tannin -- like many Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots -- can seem strident and severe with spicy dishes.
In the end, of course, there's no way to completely predict what will happen when the complex flavors of food and wine swirl together like a giant kaleidoscope. But for spice lovers, experimentation and unpredictability are half the fun.