Let’s face facts: the vast majority of us are not fully-trained sommeliers, and are unlikely to ever become one. However, that doesn’t mean we are in any way incapable of learning the fundamentals of the fine art of food and wine pairing… and art which, actually, is far simpler and more straightforward than most of us ever realised.
When you boil down the skills of a sommelier to simply seeking out wines which complement and harmonise with the key flavours of a dish (and not seeking out the quasi-mythical ‘third taste’ which manifests somewhere between the glass and the plate), suddenly the process become a whole lot more approachable and realistic. But in order to achieve this, we need to think pretty carefully about what those ‘key flavours’ really are. It’s easy enough to ascertain which wines go well with beef, or with strong cheese, or with a silky fillet of white fish… but oftentimes, those are the components of the dish we really need to be focusing on.
Regularly, the principal flavours of your food are going to come from the spices, the rubs, and the marinades you’re using to pack a punch of deliciousness to your ingredients. By paying attention to the subtleties and characteristics of these flavours (rather than the thing we’re flavouring), we can often seek out far more effective pairings. Cooking with spices is never a bad idea, and if you’re the kind of person with a well-stocked spice rack and a willingness to experiment, knowing which wines work with which classic spices is a fantastic way to approach food and wine pairing. With that in mind, let’s dive right in, and find some superb matches which are sure to set your palate alight with flavour - it’s a surefire way to take your wine pairing abilities to the next level!
Classic Spice and Wine Pairings
For many, many people, a meal could never be considered complete without a hearty twist of freshly ground black pepper. This king of spices immediately adds heat and depth to almost any dish, and if your recipe involves fiery pepper sauces or peppercorn crusts, you’re going to need a rich, luscious wine to complement it. We’d recommend opting for a Spanish Garnacha, a Merlot, a Malbec, or a classic Cotes du Rhone.
You’ll find cumin as a key component in dishes from all over the world. It was a real star of the medieval spice route, and as such, pops up in the culinary cultures of everywhere from India to North Africa, and from Israel to Scandinavia. Aromatic, punchy, and warming, it’s an absolute delight in a wide range of dishes. Meals which feature a strong presence of cumin work best with citrusy, fresh white wines, such as Vermentino or Assyrtiko. Delicious!
Who can resist the uniquely warming, comforting qualities of exotic cinnamon? It’s a spice which works just as well in a baked apple pie as it does in a deeply-flavourful stew (think Moroccan tagines, or North Indian lentil curries). Cinnamon in spicy, savoury dishes pairs beautifully with Rioja wines, and is a joy to discover alongside off-dry Rieslings in sweeter, apple-based desserts.
Ginger is one of those spices which many sommeliers try their hardest to avoid, as classically, it was regarded as particularly tricky to pair with wine. On the one hand, it’s delicate and fragrant, and on the other, it packs a deep fiery punch of boisterous flavour. It pops up a lot in southeast Asian cuisine, and when it does, we find it works best with slightly off-dry whites like Gewurztraminer. Can’t find this type of Germanic wine at your local wine store? Pair it with Champagne - it really works a treat!
Dried Chillies (and chilli sauce)
If you’re anything like us, nothing gets your mouth watering like a hefty dash of dried chillies or chilli sauce on pretty much anything you’re eating. Fiery birdseyes, smoky chipotles, deeply intense pimentos… they all bring real energy and excitement to a dish. Chillies do need a decently strong and characterful wine to stand up to, though, so stay away from lighter wines which will be obliterated from your palate by the heat of this ingredient. Tempranillo, Carmenere, Shiraz, and Malbec all make for very effective pairings, sure to please.
Exotic Spices and Blends
Cloves really manage to conjure up the spirit of Christmas and festivity. Serving a clove-studded ham in the winter? Pair it with a Douro red wine from Portugal - it’s a real winter warmer which is attracting plenty of attention at the moment. If you’re using cloves in a classic chicken dish, it’s best to stick with a luxurious Viognier or Chardonnay instead.
Saffron is a really divisive spice - you either love it, or simply cannot stand the stuff. Wherever you stand on this argument, it’s impossible to deny that it’s a fascinating flavour, with a heady, aromatic, and deep character that will require a luxurious and complex wine for pairing. Viognier ticks those boxes nicely, although any highly perfumed white would probably fit the bill just as well.
When it comes to Indian and Pakistani food, you cannot escape the importance of garam masala. It’s a genuine staple, and this spice blend has been a cornerstone of subcontinental cuisine for centuries. Despite its strength, this is a truly aromatic spice blend that deserves lighter, fruitier, palate-cleansing white wines - think Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. It’s a combination straight from Nirvana.
Chinese Five Spice
If you’ve been paying attention to the rise of the street food trend resulting, the chances are you’ve eaten a lot of Chinese Five Spice without necessarily realising it. It’s the sweet, aromatic flavour behind pulled pork, and is hugely effective in oriental duck dishes. When it comes to rich pork and duck meat, no wine hits the spot like Pinot Noir. If you can get your hands on a modern Romanian Pinot Noir, you’re in for a real treat with this flavour combo!
Originally from the spice markets of Mozambique, Piri-Piri is Portugal’s great gift to the world of casual dining. Complex, fiery, and utterly delicious, it’s absolute perfection when slathered other chicken thighs and barbecued over coals (and just as good coated on fish, pork, and pretty much anything else). This spice blend loves being paired with New World Sauvignon Blanc, as well as other ‘savoury’ whites like Verdejo.
Jamaican street food is more popular than ever before, and jerk seasoning is the beating heart behind this colourful cuisine. When rubbed into fish, chicken, and pork, it lends a real smouldering heat and punchy hit of spice, and just one whiff of the stuff is enough to get our mouths watering. Again, as with many strong spices, this seasoning loves sharp, acidic, fresh wines that can cut through all that fire; Pinot Gris, Riesling, or Gavi seem to do the trick very well indeed.
There you have it - a great starting point for pairing wine with spices. Go forth and experiment, and find the combinations which really set your palate alight!