Spice is nice. The euphoric release of endorphins, while at the same time causing one to sweat, turn red, have their mouth catch on fire, and tongue go numb, create a pain and pleasure experience that is addictive. We keep going back for more. But with the heat comes a difficulty to match wine with food, and in countries like Thailand, China, and Korea, beer is the go-to beverage, along with locally distilled spirits. One of the few wines that can hold up to these cuisines when chili peppers show up in abundance are off dry versions of varietals like Riesling and Gewürztraminer.
I know, I know…”I don’t like sweet wine,” you say. Well, just wait until you’re choking back tears, reaching for some glass of ice-cold water in the hopes it will lessen the pain. It won’t. But the little amounts of residual sugar and fruit forward, floral notes in these off-dry wines can ease the burn and bring you back to humanity.
But what about these wines help, you ask? The spice from chilies is coming from oil-based capsaicin that coats the pain receptors on your tongue at the nerve endings. As we all know, oil and water do not mix and drinking water will do little more than spread the devil oils around your mouth. Dairy can help dissolve the oils, but we’re not drinking milk, we want wine, and sugar can calm the pain. In fact, the Scoville scale in which we measure the heat each type of chili gives off is based on the amount of sugar we need to dissipate the burn. The hotter the chili, the more sugar we need, and for an off-dry Riesling to relieve our self-induced masochistic mouth-burn, look no farther than in our own backyard, the wines from Red Tail Ridge in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
A boutique winery located around Lake Seneca, the largest of the Finger Lakes, Red Tail Ridge was established in 2005 at the hands of winemaker Nancy Irelan and co-owner Mike Schnelle. In an earlier life, Nancy worked for E&J Gallo Winery in California after graduating with a PhD in grape genetics. After 12 years with the company she was leading a group of 20 people, delegating tasks for various projects, but felt disconnected to the winemaking. It was time to get her hands dirty, and a move to the Finger Lakes was just what she needed. Now, 15 years later, Red Tail Ridge creates a number of sparkling wines, both pet-nat and méthode traditionnelle, whites, rosés, and reds, and the quality and focus on sustainability has earned them both a LEED gold certificate for green winery, and a James Beard nomination.
Red Tail Ridge’s Good Karma is an off-dry Riesling that screams ripe pears in syrup, tropical fruits, guava, and floral aromas. On the palate it is juicy, and shows a lush richness in body and balanced acidity. Matched with Goong Kua Prik Glua (กุ้งคั่วพริกเกลือ), Wok-Charred Prawns with Thai Chilis, Garlic, and Salt, the pairing couldn't be better, and the slight sweetness gently washes away the chili’s burn and smartly mingles with the smoky prawns. Not only is the wine delicious, but 10% of the profits go to a local food bank- something to feel good about too.
The next time you have the urge to punish yourself with food so hot it sets your hair on fire, be prepared with an off-dry wine to help extinguish the flames. That is, unless you're a milk drinker. Then, I can’t help you at all.
Listening Suggestion: Burning Love