No doubt you have heard that dry wines go well with spicy Asian dishes because they tone down the spiciness, making the food more palatable. But hang on a second, is that what you want? To eat spicy dishes without the fiery or numbing sensation?
As a generalisation, this is the main difference between westerners and Asians over spicy food. Broadly speaking, westerners want to tame the chilli while Asians (especially South Asians) think the spicier the better.
We had a dim sum lunch recently and paired three red wines, Tempranillo, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the same dish: chicken's feet in black bean sauce. Each pairing gave a very different impression. The Tempranillo was subtle but the sauce brought out the fruitiness in the wine, making it livelier but not overpowering. The Syrah had a spicy character which was accentuated by the peppery and spicy flavours of the dish, while the Cabernet was in perfect harmony with the chicken's feet, like a contented old couple. All three wines matched the dish but your ultimate choice would depend on how you like your spicy food.
While personal preference is certainly a factor, there are still basic guidelines for food and wine matching. Their styles can be contrasting (sweet vs spicy, acidic vs oily), but their intensity and body (richness) have to be compatible, otherwise one will overpower the other (check out Flavour Colours for more elaboration). We ran a spicy food/wine pairing exercise the other day and here is the verdict:
Chicken in spicy sauce (口水雞) with a Chilean Chardonnay: although the wine is medium bodied with pronounced fruit, the dish was just a notch too heavy for the wine. The wine tasted thin and lost the fruit aroma after the food.
Hunan deep-fried prawns in chilli sauce with Chablis (100% Chardonnay from the cooler region of Burgundy in France). Again the food was too heavy for the wine. It was actually better matched with the Chilean Carmen Gran Reserve Chardonnay 2009.
Sautéed spicy beef brisket in casserole and Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Southern France: The intensely flavoured dish was well balanced by the equally intensely fruit-laden wine. The weight of the food and wine were spot on—seamless!
The key for pairing spicy, or indeed non spicy, food with wine? The intensity of flavour and body. Sweetness, acidity and tannins are more a matter of personal preference. So next time you have food (especially Asian) with wine, trust your palate, not what the experts have told you. Have fun experimenting with the options that wine and food matching offers!