Mudgee wine versus hot and spicy Thai food

In a brave and confident display early July, winemaker David Lowe pitted his solid, tannic Mudgee red wines, and a couple of whites, against the spice and fire of Thirst’s exciting Thai food.

The combinations got us talking about wine and food matching in general, about what goes, or not, with spicy food and, in particular, with chilli – the most widely used spice in the world.

The chilli pepper family derives its palate scorching powers from the alkaloid, capsaicin. Ironically, what attracts us to it – its burning power – was probably nature’s way of protecting plants from hungry predators – like us.

Yet we dose up on it, dowse the fire momentarily, or aggravate it, with cool liquid, then, like palate pyromaniacs, come back for more – as we did at Thirst a few weeks back.

Before the fireworks began, we tasted Louee Nullo Mountain Riesling 2012 – a searing, delicate beauty of a dry white, needing time to tame, and due for release in a few years, says Lowe. It’s from the Louee vineyard, 1100 metres above sea level on Nullo Mountain, near Rylestone – a colder site than Lowe’s Mudgee vineyards, 50 kilometres away and almost 700 metres lower down.

The riesling follows us to dinner, where it joins Louee Nullo Mountain Pinot Grigio 2012 and Thirst’s chilli-laden fish cakes. It’s a strikingly aromatic pinot grigio, suggesting drinking pleasure ahead. My neighbour, Nick Bulleid, gets to the wine before the food and says the flavour matches the aroma – delicious. But I hit the chilli first and the wine seems flavourless, albeit cold and fresh. The high-acid riesling, on the other hand, maintains some flavour through the chilli peak. Neither puts out the fire.

So here we have wine and food shouting for attention. It’s a flavour adventure, not flavour matching. The food creates its own urgency, pain and thrill, while the wine flavours pop up momentarily between waves of spice and chilli heat. The pinot grigio, for example, comes back to life between courses.

This is a familiar flavour battle and one I’ve cherished for decades, putting many beers and wines to the test. The question becomes do we want to soothe the pain, fan the flame or go for the big flavour shoot out?

How about a bit of each? Drive the devil out with Beelzebub, so to speak, by turning on the flavour kaleidoscope. An old beer-judging mate, Bill Taylor, chief brewer at Lion, once told me the capsaicin family meets its match in really hoppy, bitter beers.

For example, the original Czech pilsners, and some Australian versions of the style, have the stuffing to put the chill on chilli anytime. They won’t dowse the fire, but they’ll make it sputter and fizz as capsaicin and hops joust for palate space. It’s a particularly interesting battle, too, because capsaicin and hops both have exceptionally lingering flavours.

Less bitter beers, on the other hand, tend to temper the heat. But, like the pinot grigio, they sit in the background, subdued by chilli heat and flavour.

But these beers are cheap, and being cold and wet is all we ask of them. However, if I’m drinking wine costing $20 or more a bottle, I want to taste it, even when the chilli’s burning.

Some wines step up to the mark. Lowe’s young riesling did. And it’ll no doubt look even better over time as the fruit flavour blossoms, ultimately outweighing the acidity.

In general, fruity, soft wines, whether red or white maintain flavour through the spice and chilli attack.

Aromatic and floral white wines offer a purity of fruit flavour, refreshing acidity and, quite often, a gentle sweetness. In combination, these elements not only refresh but also broaden the flavour impressions of a wide range of spicy and even mildly hot dishes. Riesling is a favourite, especially those with modest amounts of residual sugar.

In the discussion at Thirst, partner in Winewise magazine, Lester Jesberg, mentioned Beaujolais – a soft, juicy, light-bodied, fruity red made from the gamay grape at the southern tip of France’s Burgundy region.

I’ve enjoyed the style with hot and spicy foods and agree with Jesberg. The lovely fruitiness runs side by side with chilli, without taking the edge off the heat. But no wine I know of achieves the latter.

In the last few years, I’ve tried a wide range of red wines with Indian food, covering a spectrum of spicy flavours and, at times, intense chilli heat. We’ve yet to find one that mollifies the heat. But fruity wines with soft tannins consistently hold their flavours with the food. In particular, we’ve enjoyed Australian warm climate shiraz and grenache and blends where those two varieties dominate.

At the Thirst-Lowe dinner and tasting, a long run of shirazes, from 2002 vintage to 2011 (with some gaps) as well as zinfandel and nebbiolo and found much to love. However, Mudgee reds in general carry a formidable tannin load, giving a firm, sometimes-tough finish. I don’t think these work with hot and spicy food.

To me, the most appealing with the food were the fruitier zinfandels (though the tannins took the edge off) and Lowe’s Block 8 Shiraz 2011 – a fragrant and silky, soft wine from an unusually cold vintage. Lowe called it his “stalky Murrumbateman style”.

Overall, though, the people attending the dinner didn’t seem too fussed about whether the wine and food matched or clashed. They enjoyed both, they said, and weren’t silly enough to be deflected from a good night out and exploring a great diversity of flavours.

Copyright Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 24 July in the Canberra Times and