The Ultimate Guide to Pairing Wine With Spicy Food

Among the many loosely adhered-to rules of pairing wine and food, one of the most common aphorisms, “if it grows together, it goes together,” doesn’t always work when it comes to pouring wine alongside spicy food. One of the main reasons is that many of the world’s hottest chilies and much of its highly spiced food come from places close to the equator, whose tropical climates are not favorable to growing grapes and making wine. Because those area’s regional cuisine styles flourished and evolved in the absence of local wine culture, there’s almost nothing to go together on the vinous front.

Another challenge to pairing wine with spicy food is that hot or pungent dishes work best with wines that are low in tannin and have somewhat full textures, many of which are off the well-trodden wine track. Strong tannins—the ones you may find in your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon, for example—intensify the feeling of heat on the palate and can be unpleasant alongside picante dishes. In some cases, wine with a touch of sweetness works really well with foods that rank high on the Scoville scale—there is a double bonus at work because some styles of hot foods such as Thai and American barbecue may also have sweet components as well. To keep your mouth from going up in flames, here are the wine styles that work best with spicy food from around the world.

More from Robb Report


Sichuan and Hunan are two of the hottest styles of Chinese cuisine. The first gets its heat from Sichuan peppers and chili oil, while Hunan uses fresh, dried, and pickled chilies. There is a type of Sichuan which you may see referred to as “numbing” on menus which seems to alter the taste buds and will make your wine and even water taste different temporarily. The best wines we have found with these dishes are Spätlese or Auslese Riesling from Germany or late harvest Hungarian Tokaji, which have enough sweetness and acidity to hold up to the extremely strong spice and maintain a good flavor in the mouth despite changes in taste sensation. We have found that crisp Italian whites such as Vermentino, Greco di Tufo, and Fiano are terrific alongside Hunan stir-fries and braised chicken or seafood.


Copra - Cauliflower and Green Apple Curry
Copra - Cauliflower and Green Apple Curry

Indian cuisine varies strongly from region to region. If you’re going with a curry whether it is tomato-based, creamy, or vinegary and tart, it will get its heat from chilies. If you’re enjoying tikka masala, vindaloo, or greens-based saag, dry or slightly off-dry Kabinett-style Riesling from Germany is a good pick, and Gewürztraminer from Germany or from Alsace in France also work very well. Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc are also strong contenders; look for bottles from South Africa or India and you won’t be disappointed.


Heat in the mouth is not the first thing that comes to mind when considering Italian food, but certain Italian American favorites like spicy rigatoni, linguine fra diavolo, or pizza topped with pepperoni, sausage, or Calabrian chilies are widely available on this side of the ocean. Red wines with softer tannins such as Sangiovese, especially Chianti, work really well with these, as do young Spanish roble or Crianza wine, the styles with a light touch of wood, made with either Tempranillo or Garnacha. In combination, tomatoes and chilies have an affinity for feathery tannins, full mouthfeel, and bold acidity, so consider vintage Champagne with spicy red sauce dishes as well.


Ceviche and Peruvian-style roast chicken receive their kick from aji pepper, which can be fresh, dried, or made into paste. Both also have strong citrus notes, which will be complemented by aromatic whites such as Gewürztraminer from Alsace, France, Alto Adige, Italy, or New York’s Finger Lakes region. Viognier from Condrieu in the Rhône Valley or from Napa are also excellent options. Peruvian fusion sushi is often topped with slightly sweet, spicy mayonnaise, which goes nicely with sweet Moscato d’Asti.


Suadero Tacos, Suerte
Suadero Tacos, Suerte

Food from Mexico straddles a wide range of styles, but many U.S.-based Mexican restaurants specialize in tacos, burritos, or quesadillas with a variety of fillings flavored with chipotle or habanero peppers. With spicy beef or pork carnitas, a lower-tannin red such as Garnacha from Spain or Syrah from Northern Rhone appellations such as Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, or Côte Rôtie will do the trick. Strong acidity and lightweight tannins will keep spice from overpowering the palate; meanwhile bold fruit flavors will stand up to grilled meat. New Zealand or Chilean Sauvignon Blanc are both smart picks with fish or shrimp, especially when citrus and cilantro are in the mix; tropical fruit flavors and vivid acidity are a surefire match with seafood, spice, and chopped green herbs.

Thai Food

Thai cuisine differs greatly by region, but one commonality is a combination of spice, fresh green herbs, and a touch of acidity. Wines with high acid work very well with dishes such as larb, Penang curry, or hot tom yum soup. Consider Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends from Bordeaux, or Riesling from Alto Adige in Italy. Bracing acidity and citrus, stone fruit, and tropical fruit flavors will hold up to the heat and green herbal notes of many types of Thai food.


Cote's Butcher's Feast
Cote's Butcher's Feast

The popularity of Korean-style fried chicken in the States has added a whole new level of heat to American mouths. Spicy Korean dishes like donkatsu (pork cutlet), buldak (also called fire chicken) or jokbal (steamed pork) are fired up thanks to a combination of red chili paste and dried chili flakes. Champagne’s full texture, citrus, and apple flavors, and vivid acidity are a terrific match with the spice of Korean food and the brightness of kimchi, the fermented vegetables served on the side of many plates. Pinot Grigio, whether from Italy or California, is a good call too, and a crisp, citrusy Albariño from the north of Spain will also do the trick. Red wine lovers can look to cool climate Grenache, especially from California’s central coast, to pair with Korean barbecue. Its lightweight tannins and soft spice and floral notes will offset the fattiness of grilled meat and hold up to pickled sides. 

American Barbecue

Spicy American cuisine like Buffalo wings, slow cooked pork or brisket with barbecue sauce, or Tex-Mex food are often made with hot sauce featuring cayenne, Carolina Reaper, Scotch Bonnet, or tabasco peppers. While you may be tempted to reach for an ice-cold beer with all these foods, try a Barossa Shiraz with bold, ripe fruit or South African Pinotage, whose smoky and earthy notes are perfect with a touch of spice. Pop either into the fridge for 30 minutes before serving; the lower temperature will soften the tannic edges and keep the heat tamped down on your tongue. Sweet and high-acid Sauternes is also an excellent pick, especially for meat or chicken doused with barbecue sauce that offers notes of sugar and vinegar.

Culinary Masters 2024
Don’t miss the food event of the year. Register for Robb Report’s Culinary Masters now. Or, for more information on Robb Report experiences, visit RR1.

Best of Robb Report

Sign up for Robb Report's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Click here to read the full article.