Sichuan spicy fish soup: four words that put even the boldest wine drinkers on notice. It's a challenge, all right, but, hey, what are challenges for, if not to make us bold and go for it.?
It's the best advice I can give when faced with a lazy susan whirling with dishes filled with Sichuan peppercorns, chillies, and deep, dark-red pastes fraught with peril. Then there's the array of sassy Mexican spices that have become our fun-but-fiery amigos in recent years; and an old friend, the kind of slow-burn Thai curry that appears mild-mannered at first bite but contains deceptive depths of heat.
Just go for it. Pick up that wine bottle and pour. Sure, there might be a little pain. But there might just be paradise only a sip away.
1. Zeppelin 2013 Eden Valley Riesling, $22
Fish in a Bengali sauce! Yes, that was it, that was the picture that first came to mind after tasting this riesling (from McWilliam's). It's a wine that first up suggests delicacy but actually is stronger, more complex and surprisingly capable of coming to terms with cayenne pepper, turmeric, green chillies, and mustard oil, all of which make up the heart of a good Bengali sauce. The wine's brisk lime-lemonyness and spice cools the fevered heat where these ingredients are concerned.
2. Vasse Felix 2014 Chardonnay, $22
Habarnero, poblano and jalapeno chillies are the devil's triangle when it comes to matching wine. Evil incarnate. Cajun cooking in Louisiana employs them endlessly, as do the new breed of southern-style chefs here at home. Tread warily. To match, I like a wine with weight, not strong on oak, something textural, clean and definitely with substance. Something like Vasse Felix chardonnay. Its reserved power could take on a bus ... or a jalapeno.
3. Provenance 2015 The Griesling, $25
There is a reason why every single story on food and wine matching paints aromatic white wines as the heroes when paired with super-spiced dishes. It's simple. They work. Enter The Griesling, a blend of pinot gris and riesling with each grape bringing something to the table. Gris is all business, solid, textural with charming spiced pear flavours; riesling is the counterpoint, hitting the high notes of floral aromatics, musk and offering a gentle delicacy threading its way around the hottest roadblocks.
4. Eldridge Estate 2015 PTG Pinot Noir/Gamay, $30
There is genius at work here. David Lloyd at Eldridge Estate on the Mornington Peninsula borrowed a little something from the Burgundians called passe-tout-grains (PTG), which blends equal parts pinot noir and gamay as the grapes are loaded into the vats. The Eldridge PTG melts in the mouth with a velvety sheen, cherry, fleshy red berries abound, and the best thing is the soft tannins. Those soft tannins are the key when matching hot, super-spiced foods. They don't fight the heat, they don't make it worse, they melt it.
5. Meerea Park Indie 2014 Shiraz/Pinot Noir, $40
Many wines might try but few pass my benchmark hot-spice test, a test that pits a wine against the delicious but spicy beef rendang. All the usual suspects are involved in its cooking: chillies, lemongrass, turmeric. It's not for the faint of heart. Indie shiraz/pinot noir from the Hunter Valley is a bit of an odd coupling on paper, but in the glass it matches weight for weight, complexity for complexity and brings its own additional sweet, earthy, berry flavour. Match done.
6. Toi Toi Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2015 $10
Don't ignore sauvignon blanc with spicy food. The sweet/sour/salt/spice equation and herby complexity of Thai food contrasts well with Kiwi savvy like this. Also worth trying with Mexican ideas about hot spice.
7. Plan B OD Frankland River Riesling 2015 $22
"OD" stands for "off-dry" and lower alcohol riesling that hints at sweetness is a great all-rounder with spicy foods, especially Thai, Vietnamese or Chinese dishes.
8. Logan Weemala Gewurztraminer 2015 $20
Gewurztraminer is the "conventional unconventional" choice for food with spice, especially when it has an Asian accent. Works with Indian dishes where pungent spice is a given.
9. Vinoque Gamay Noir 2015 $25
Reds can be problematic with hot spice, but lighter wines with soft tannins and good acidity like this Yarra Valley gamay can do the trick. A light chill does no harm either.
10. Pedestal Margaret River Chardonnay 2014 $25
Generously built chardonnay of smooth texture, fresh, ripe flavour and good balance marries well with creamy, rich and coconutty curries from Malaysia, Thailand and India.