Ever wondered what causes ‘spiciness’ in wine? Or whether it actually helps when you’re matching wine with spicy food? Jane Parkinson enters the exotic terpene and pyrazine bazaar to find out
As a nation of curry lovers, the Brits like a good dollop of spice on their plates. But they clearly love a bit of it in their wine glasses too, if descriptions on pub, bar and restaurant wine lists are anything to go by, since they’re (literally) peppered with the word ‘spicy’.
But from where does wine spice come? Is it a naturally occurring character in a wine, an interventionist one, or is it actually both? Brian Croser of Petaluma and Tapanappa fame – and one of the most respected winemakers in the world – explains, ‘Spiciness is a multi-faceted description used across many styles of wine and has many different causes, but the generic presence of aromatic essential oils and phenolic compounds across different plant species and grape varieties is the main contributor.’
In pinpointing the origin of spice in specific varieties, Croser has this advice to offer: ‘Shiraz is often spoken of as being spicy because of the presence of a sesquiterpene [chemical compound], rotundone, which is also present in white pepper. Gewürztraminer, Muscat, Viognier and Riesling are described as spicy due to the naturally occurring terpenes (essential oils) which are part of the grape’s DNA.’
The Spice is Right
When it comes to spice in Pinot Noir, Croser advises that it can have a Chinese five-spice character ‘because of the presence of the same phenolic compounds which give star anise, cinnamon, clove, vanilla and nutmeg their typical aromas. These are also naturally occurring compounds in grapes.’
While some wine spice characters occur naturally, there are methods of enhancing the spice such as yeast selection and the use of oak. Croser declares that oak will tease an extra element of these phenolic compounds out of the grapes, making the wine spicier in the process.
But even before a wine hits a barrel, there’s yet another interventionist practice which can
affect the level of spice in a wine – in two popular varieties in particular.
There are methods of enhancing a wine’s spice,
such as yeast selection and the use of oak
‘Compounding all of this [naturally occurring spice], the use of stalks in the fermentation of Pinot Noir and Shiraz contribute a combination of green characters from leaf aldehydes and pyrazine compounds which create a spicy green character,’ he says.
The mint and eucalyptus spice on a wine, made most famous by Cabernet Sauvignon, is due to ‘the Cabernet family inherently having a big dose of pyrazine which can persist through the ripening process,’ says Croser, adding that spiciness can be enhanced ‘by drought conditions as well as proximity to eucalyptus trees through the absorption of the volatile aromas into the wax cuticle of the grape. Other aromatic plants such as thyme and rosemary can have a similar effect in proximity to ripening grapes.’
A match made in heaven?
While Croser confirms that the origin of the spice in a wine can occur naturally and be enhanced deliberately, when it comes to marrying spicy wine with spicy food, do they have a natural synergy or do they just repel each other?
Costanzo Scala, group wine buyer and sommelier at Benares Restaurant & Bar in London’s Mayfair, declares that the rules are that there ain’t no rules. ‘In matching wine with Indian cuisine, all of the usual rules cease to exist and new ones apply,’ he says. ‘Spicy wines don’t necessarily match spicy food because the outcome of the pairing is more determined by the way that some of the wine’s structural elements, namely acidity, minerality and alcohol, work in harmony with the dish’s structural elements.
‘A spicy wine with a pronounced or lingering acidity might not work because its acidity could be lingering on top of the existing spice that’s sitting on the palate, making it hard to handle. Wines with pronounced minerality might present the same problem because that minerality
can act like liveliness on your palate.’
Not for the faint-hearted
Another important factor to take into consideration when pairing wine with spicy food, says Scala, is the level of spicy food tolerance and experience of the individual. ‘If a palate is Indian it’s very used to spicy food, so a wine with acidity, minerality and alcohol may be best, as those elements would amplify the spicy sensation by quite a degree.
‘With a Western palate, I would suggest well-balanced wines that have structure and fruit ripeness, so that none of the structural elements stand out on their own, and they stimulate and interact with the hot elements already present on the palate after a mouthful of the dish.’
This detailed matching of wine with spicy food, dish by dish, is favoured by consultant buyer for London restaurants Chutney Mary, Amaya and Veeraswamy, Matthew Jukes. Jukes has a steadfast rule that keeps these restaurants’ wine choices relevant for the dishes they serve, ‘Avoid too much oak in both reds and whites, and too much tannin in reds. Wines being fruit-driven is key to everything – not sweetness, as most people mistakenly think, but purity of fruit,’ he advises.
With spicy food you have to try each individual wine with
each dish to see how it works’ gearoid devaney, MS
This ethos has clearly stood the test of time, as Jukes has worked as a consultant buyer for Chutney Mary for the last 10 years. ‘When I started with Chutney Mary, Camellia Panjabi, one of the owners of the group and a world-famous chef and authority on Indian food, challenged my palate with one of her brilliant dishes – lamb shakuti, an extremely complex lamb shank dish with one of the most layered, fragrant, spice-infused, labour-intensive gravies I have ever tasted. If I nailed this dish then everything else would be a doddle.
‘I chose the awesome Librandi Gravello Rosso, from Calabria [available through Enotria]. It’s made from Gaglioppo and Cabernet Sauvignon and I discovered it at Vinitaly many, many moons ago. I never forgot the flavour: it was one of the most remarkable I have ever encountered. I knew it would be an exact fit – and it was. Camellia and I have been firm friends
ever since and I also kept my job!’
Master Sommelier Gearoid Devaney, who currently works at Flint Wines, believes the art of matching spicy food with wine is ‘very subjective’. His experience on both sides of the restaurant business – service and supply – has led him to conclude that ‘with spicy food you really have to try each individual wine with each dish to see how it works. It’s really hard to generalise. When I’ve talked to wine buyers such as Christine Parkinson at Hakkasan, she’s confirmed that if they’re going to list a wine they really need to sit down and try it with different dishes to check its compatibility. Laurent Chaniac from The Cinnamon Club also takes a lot of care and attention to find the wines that work for his dishes that are often more aromatic than just hot.’
All this seems to confirm the widely-held belief among restaurant wine buyers and sommeliers that the selection of wine with spicy food is a hyper-analytical business. If the intimate flavour profile of a spicy dish is not respected or understood, the chances of making a wine work with spicy food is a serious gamble.
Costanzo Scala’s top three spicy wine choices….
Constantia Uitsig Reserve Semillon 2008, South Africa
This Semillon really awakens the senses with its beautiful perfumes of freshly cut green chilli and white pepper.
£13.10, MARC Fine Wines, 020 7856 9210
Pieropan Soave La Rocca 2009, Italy
Sweet spice complexity along with subtle stone fruit nuances and marzipan.
£16.18, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
Ventolera Pinot Noir 2008, Leyda, Chile
This is great with Tandoor dishes. It boasts a smoky nose, with sweet vanilla lingering on to the palate with great length.
£13.46, Novum Wines, 01582 722538
Matthew Jukes’ quick spicy food and grape guide…
Whites: Albariño, unoaked Chardonnay, Falanghina, Fiano, light Gewürztraminer, Greco, Grüner Veltliner, Malvasia, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio/Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontés, Verdelho, Verdicchio, Vermentino and Viognier.
Rosés: All dry styles.
Reds: Barbera, Gamay (Beaujolais), Grenache (and Spanish Garnacha), Lagrein, Merlot, Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Valpolicella, young Rioja and Zinfandel.
Other styles: Asti (with puddings), Aussie sparklers, rosé champagne, prosecco and good-quality ruby port.