It's a theme we explore often in this column, but it all comes down to a wine's acidity. Eric Asimov has a wonderful article about this in the NY Times (free registration req'd) -- a very interesting takeaway is that the similar wines from various geographic regions can pair strikingly differently with spicy foods.
Take bubbly for example -- French Champagne is the drink of choice if you want to branch out beyond beer:
So what is the right wine to go along with these foods? More often than not, it's Champagne. No wine, believe it or not, is as versatile with so wide a range of food as Champagne, and that especially includes foods that are assertively spiced. Chicken chaat with chili, cilantro and that icy feeling in the top of your mouth that comes from coarsely ground Indian black salt? Champagne is your baby. Griot, the Haitian dish of pork chunks that are marinated in vinegar, chili and lemon juice, then fried? You won't go wrong with Champagne. Sichuan twice-cooked pork? Champagne, definitely.
But don't simply grab the first bubbly you see or you might be disappointed:
On first glance, it's obvious why Champagne would go so well with beer cuisines. It's the bubbles. But that doesn't explain all of it. Cava and prosecco have bubbles, but they don't have the intensity of Champagne. California sparkling wine has bubbles, but it often is a little too heavy to refresh. I recently tried a sparkling shiraz from Australia with falafel and hummus with hot sauce, and frankly, I wish I had used more hot sauce to drown out the thick, sweet yet bitter flavor of the shiraz. No, the bubbles are important, but Champagne also has a crucial element that the other sparkling wines too often lack: high acidity.
Acidity gives wine snap and zest. It gives it a sense of freshness and helps to stimulate the palate. Even sweet wines, like a German riesling auslese, when balanced by acidity, can be thoroughly refreshing. Good acidity in a wine is essential if it is to accompany foods that aren't typically thought of as good with wine.
Thai cuisine (in this case, Holy Basil in NYC) is renowned for destroying the flavors of high scoring wines, so you have to pair a bit more carefully than simply picking the "best" wine on the list:
At a meal there I tried a 2002 Bourgueil "Les Galichets" from Catherine and Pierre Breton, as well as a 1995 Rioja Reserva from López de Heredia. The Rioja is wonderful, and about twice the price of the Bourgueil, but with a pungent, tart yet balanced dish like crisp duck with panang curry and kaffir lime? The Rioja had no business on the table. The Bourgueil, though, was perfect - refreshing and stimulating. The Rioja no doubt would receive a higher score in a blind tasting, but at a Thai dinner, the Bourgueil blew it away.
Sushi, though, is a match with an altogether different sort of red wine (but with the same "acid test," if you will):
Sushi and pinot noir is a surprisingly excellent combination, though you need to be careful. Burgundies are generally good choices, because they have sufficient acidity, but American pinot noirs can often be too sweet.
Most importantly, do not go anywhere near the big, bad Cabs that dominate wine lists put together based on scores rather than the restaurant's cuisine:
Cabernet, merlot and other Bordeaux varietal wines may be among the world's most popular, but when it comes to foods off the wine trail, they tend to be overbearing brutes. Tannins, which are generally plentiful in cabernet, and spicy foods are like rivals whom you don't want to invite to the same party. Inevitably, they'll butt heads. When cabernets age and the tannins soften, the roles reverse, and it's the spicy food that does the bullying.