Honing in on the best wines for hot fareby Courtney Cochran
There are few places in the world where people get as excited about eclectic cuisine as they do in Northern California. This truth was at the top of my mind while I reflected on a spirited Cajun-style crawfish boil I attended at a private home in Napa a while ago.
There, an excited group of wine industry luminaries had waited anxiously while two giant pots' worth of crawfish freshly harvested from the Sacramento River cooked over several hours in piquant Cajun spices. After a protracted cocktail/cooking hour, the pots of boiled crustaceans were poured out onto newspapers spread on an outdoor table for a southern-style alfresco meal. The guests, taking cues from a host with Louisiana roots, rolled up their sleeves and dove into the crawfish, ultimately polishing off the entire batch before retiring to nurse their over-spiced taste buds over conversation and cold beer.
The spice of life
That's right, beer. Cajun cuisine, with its reliance on cayenne pepper and other assertive spices, is known for being remarkably hot. And, as you might imagine, intensely spicy fare is not the easiest thing to pair with wine due to its tendency to render our taste buds more or less deadened to other flavors - particularly the delicate flavors found in wine. This is why cold beer, traditionally served at lower temperatures than wine and with a refreshing dash of carbonation, has a far better chance than your average wine at standing up to spicy stuff like Cajun fare.
Fortunately for wine lovers looking to explore adventurous fare like cayenne crawfish, Cajun cuisine does have a few wine saviors that rise to the tricky task. Read on for the low-down on wines that'll work swimmingly with the hottest Cajun fare. Finding a spirited host with Louisiana roots is entirely up to you.
But first, a few no-nos
Tannin - the substance found in red wines that leaves our mouths feeling dry and our teeth chalky - does nothing to combat the deadening effects of excessively spicy food; instead, you're just left with a dry mouth full of over-spiced 'buds. So, when Cajun's on the menu, skip the reds. Ditto for wines that are high in alcohol. Because alcohol in wine creates a sensation of heat as it goes down, it generates a sensation akin to swallowing a lit match when consumed along with food that generates a lot of heat on its own. Clearly, these wines should be avoided at your crawfish boil! High alcohol wines are generally those whose alcohol content clocks in north of 14%.
Cayenne wines to the rescue
It should come as no surprise, then, that you ought to reach for relatively low-alcohol whites when pairing wine with Cajun fare. These wines will provide relief from the heat of the food with their brisk acidity without unnecessarily upping the hot factor with high alcohol. The best whites for spicy fare are those whose flavor profiles include spice notes; these include Gewerztraminer, Viognier, Muscat, Pinot Grigio, and Gruner Veltliner. Two of these wines - Gewurztraminer and Viognier - can be perilously low in acidity when grown in hot climates, so reach for versions from France or cooler new world outposts like Sonoma or Washington state, when possible.
And Champagne, with its laser-like acidity and wonderfully refreshing bubbles, is hands-down the best wine to drink with Cajun fare. Some may bristle at the combination of such haute wine and casual fare like crawfish, but I find the high-low combo absolutely divine. Contrasts like these, after all, are the spice of life.