Dead Man's Chest Wine Cellar: Wine and Caribbean Food

by Jim Clarke
February 2007

We don’t usually consider the Caribbean a place for wine. Rum, and rum-based cocktails? Of course. Beer? Certainly. But wine - there’s not much call for it. Hot humid climates don’t typically grow good winegrapes, and it’s hard to develop a tradition for winedrinking without local winemaking. But even without a homegrown connection, there are plenty of wines that go well with Caribbean food.

But what about the spices? Hot spices like the scotch bonnet in jerk seasoning can make some wines taste off. It can also work the other way around: the wine can make a hot spice seem downright aggressive and imbalanced.

Rum cocktails work with spicy food because they usually have a sweet element – fruit juice, for example – which puts out the fire of hot peppers. Some wines can do the same thing; a touch of sweetness that rounds out the wine can also balance your palate.

Light and White

German Riesling is the classic example. Because of the cool climate in Germany, the grapes don’t develop a lot of sugar, but do hold onto their acidity. If the winemaker fermented all that sugar into alcohol the wine would be undrinkable, because the acidity would feel like a laserbeam burning holes in your teeth. Instead, the winemaker leaves some sugar unfermented in the wine, which eases the feeling of acidity, and the wine is naturally lower in alcohol.

Riesling from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer area will be the lightest, with fruity peach and apricot flavors. If you go south from there to the Rheingau, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz regions, the climate warms, so the wines can be a bit fuller, with more minerally flavors. It’s easy to find them on the shelves in their tall, narrow bottles: Mosel wines in green glass, and wines from along the Rhine River in brown.

Try: The Maximin Grunhauser Abstberg Riesling Spätlese 2004 with Norman Van Aken’s Bahamian Conch Chowder

Over the border in France, the Alsace region grows Riesling as well as Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer in a rich, fuller-bodied style. While German wines can be as low as 8% alcohol, Alsatian wines typically hover around the 13% mark. Gewurztraminer in particular is very aromatic, with lots of tropical fruit flavors like mandarins, lychees, or pineapple – flavors that make it a good stand-in for a cocktail. Alsace’s wines are often drier than Germany’s; some bone-dry wines may not have that firehose effect on the spice, but they will at least reach a “live-and-let-live” policy with hot dishes. The wines from Alsace are also known for aromas of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg, which may bring out the allspice side of a jerk seasoning, for example.

Try: The Lucien Albrecht Gewurztraminer Reserve 2005 with Norman Van Aken’s Pan Roasted Cumin-Rubbed Chicken Breast

New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs also co-exist well with spice and heat, and again, may have that “cocktail affect” with their passion fruit, pineapple, and grapefruit aromas. They’re generally quite crisp, and can be more refreshing than Alsace’s heavy wines on a hot day.

Try: The Cairnbrae Sauvignon Blanc 2005 with Lynn Frederick’s Steamed Snapper with a Caribbean Salsa

Most of these whites aren’t aged in new oak barrels. Oak-aged wines can taste harsh and unpleasant when they encounter spicy heat. That makes Chardonnay the “don’t-go-there” white wine for spicy food, especially those from California and Australia. A Chardonnay labeled “unoaked” or “unwooded” can work, even though it won’t have the aromatic qualities of some of the wines mentioned above. France’s Chablis or Maconnais wines are the best exemplars of this style.

Try: The La Chablisienne Chablis Cuvée L.C. 2002 with Allen Susser’s Shrimp Bigarrade with a Caribbean Ratatouille

Seeing Red

Red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are often aged in new oak as well, but they also have an additional problem: tannins. When tannins meet spice and heat, they amplify it, and unpleasantly so – it’s like turning up the volume on your stereo so that the sound gets distorted and unlistenable.

But red wine drinkers shouldn’t despair: some red grapes are naturally low in tannins. Barbera, from northwest Italy, is great this way: its skins have a lot of color and flavor, but very little tannin. Some winemakers do age their Barberas in oak, but these are asy to spot: the more expensive a Barbera is, the greater the odds it spent time in oak (those barrels are expensive), so an affordable Barbera is usually a better match with jerk ribs than an expensive one. Barbera typically has lots of cherry and raspberry flavors, with high acidity that keeps it refreshing.

Try: The Maccario “Lavignone” Barbera D’Asti 2003 with Douglas Rodriguez’s Patria Pork

For a really full-bodied red, try California’s “native” grape, Zinfandel. While not as consistently low in tannins as Barbera, it does tend in that direction, with aromas like boysenberry, raspberry, chocolate, and briar. Unusually for a red, some Zinfandels even retain a touch of sweetness, which will help a Zin balance with spicy foods as with a Riesling.

Try: The Rosenblum Planchon Vineyard Zinfandel 2003 with Cindy Hutson’s Jerk Double Pork Chop with Guava Bacardi Spiced Rum

There’s one more choice: rosés, which seem to be coming back into fashion. They’re lighter, crisper, and less tannic than reds, and they’re traditionally served chilled, which adds some obvious refreshment after a bite of spicy food. Spain and Provence are well-known for making rosés, generally from the Grenache (in Spanish, Garnacha) grape.

Try: Bodegas Muga Rioja Rosé 2005 with Douglas Rodriguez’s Puteria de Mariscos