By Jim Clarke
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
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
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
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
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
Rodriguez’s Puteria de Mariscos
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