Reisling and Spice

By Jordan P. Ross

A common dilemma in paring food and wine is what wine to serve with spicy food. To answer this question we need to know the something about capsaicin, the heat-producing component of chile peppers.

Capsaicin activates pain receptors in the mouth. These pain receptors are also sensitive to temperature. Hot beverages like sake or tea will turn on these pain receptors and kick up the heat and cold drinks will turn off the pain receptors but as soon as the mouth warms up again, the burn returns.

Capsaicin is fat soluble so a cold dairy drink, high in acidity to stimulate salivary flow with some sweetness which has been proven ameliorates the burn makes yogurt an effective antidote. When it comes to wine, German Riesling is effective at soothing the burn because it has a lot in common with yogurt: the cold temperature turns off the pain receptors, high acidity stimulates salivary flow and the sweetness is soothing. The low alcohol compared to other white wines (8–10% vs.13.5) is an added benefit because alcohol will kick up the burn (think about a shot of vodka).

German Riesling and Asian Cuisine

German Riesling is not only good at quelling the heat of chiles but it is the perfect compliment to Thai and Chinese cuisine in another way. Selecting the right wine requires identifying the dominant taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter) of a dish. In Chinese and Thai, the dominant taste sensations are sour (rice vinegar), sweet (sugar, coconut milk) and salt (soy). Riesling's sweetness counterbalances the food's salt and sour. [See Box] The conventional wisdom of Gewurztraminer with Chinese food is logical except that they are higher in alcohol and often low in acidity.

How do the four tastes interact?

The different taste qualities inhibit or suppress one another. In food, we say they balance or compliment each other. Sweet wines such as Port or Sauternes compliment Stilton cheese because salt and sweet suppress or balance each other. Sweetness suppresses bitterness, which is why sugar is added to grapefruit and espresso and why a winemaker will retain some residual sugar to hide bitterness. Bitter greens go well with a sweet vinaigrette dressing. Sour (acidity) and sweet also suppress one another. Adding sugar to lemon juice reduces the tartness, the sourness is the same but the perception of it has changed. If you taste two German Rieslings with identical residual sugar, one may taste less sweet because it is higher in acidity. Just as higher acidity reduces the perception of sweetness, higher residual sugar lowers the perception of acidity.