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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Correct me if I am misinformed. I note that some world-renowned chefs serve a red-hot, spicy entrée, which is supposed to open up our palates in preparation for a wine tasting. Do you concur?
I’ve never heard of that, but I don’t doubt it happens—hot chilies do sensitize taste buds. There’s something very satisfying about sipping something refreshing after you experience some heat.
But from my experience, spicy foods can interfere with—not enhance—the experience of a wine. When my mouth is on fire from a habanero pepper, I can’t taste much else until the pepper note fades away.
When pairing wines with spicy foods, it helps to pick a wine that’s low in alcohol (alcohol can make things taste “hotter”), low in tannins (which can also clash with heat) and perhaps with a small amount of residual sugar—not necessarily an overtly sweet or dessert-style wine, but one with just a dollop of sweetness, or perceived sweetness, that can soothe spicy tones. That way, you can have your chili pepper and eat it too.
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