Wine Alternatives for Chips and Salsa

Tomato SalsaWe’re entering week six of the 2014 NFL season, and that can mean only one thing: It’s time for chips and salsa.

Okay, it could mean many more things as well, but I happen to be hungry as I write this blog.

Many people would add a third item to that “list,” making it chips, salsa… and beer. However, beer need not be your only adult beverage choice to accompany this spicy treat. You have options.

Wine options.

The challenge presented by salsa, not to mention Mexican and Southwestern cuisine in general, is its intense flavor, typically the result of using chilies and cilantro in the preparation.

Chilies, in particular, can play havoc with one’s taste buds and, by extension, the wine-pairing possibilities.

“We are the only species on Earth that seems to enjoy the pain response caused by capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilies,” writes Barb Stuckey in her book, Taste What You’re Missing (Simon and Schuster, $26).

Stuckey cites research involving rats, conducted by Paul Bozin. What he discovered was that rats could build up a tolerance for spicy food but, if given a choice, would opt for bland over spicy. Many humans, on the other hand, seem to seek out heat in their food — the hotter the better. And this is resulting in hotter salsas than in the past.

Sparkling wine, given its high acidity that refreshes the mouth, is a go-to choice for spicy food in general. But when it comes to salsa, three other types of wine also can work well: other high-acid wines, those that have a touch of sweetness and are quite “fruity,” and wines with plush, jammy textures.

Among high-acid wines, Sauvignon Blanc, particularly when aged in stainless steel tanks as opposed to oak barrels, makes a solid salsa companion. The variety’s herbal flavors also mesh well with the flavor of many chilies.

Among slightly sweet — typically referred to as “off-dry” or “semi-sweet” — wines, look for California or Texas renditions of Chenin Blanc or Riesling.

And when it comes to plush, jammy wines, nothing beats California Zinfandel — red Zin, that is, not the ultra-sweet blush wine known as White Zinfandel. The bigger and bolder the Zin, the better, as its big berry flavors seem to dance with a salsa’s chili spice.

Are you ready for some football? Fasten your seat belt, because the season is just kicking into high gear, and you’re going to need plenty of wine to get your through the playoffs.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes
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