When it gets really hot, with what wine can we put out the fire? Common sense dictates that wines with less alcohol and more freshness are the ideal. Does the science behind the good harmonizations agree?
First of all, it is good to know that the sensation of hotness is the deliberate aggression of some plants and fruits to their devourers little relevant for the perpetuation of these species. Along its evolution, a part of the genus of Capsicum plants, which includes peppers and chilis, such as piripiris (in Portugal and Mozambique), chili peppers (in Brazil), gindungos (Angola), habaneros (Mexico) or tabasco (USA), among others, besides black pepper or black pepper, as it is known in Brazil, the latter of the genus Piper, proved to be better adapted because it develops protective substances, such as capsaicin and piperina, respectively.
The capsaicin of red and yellow peppers, above all, is extremely irritating to herbivores and mammals, whose molar teeth destroy the seeds, preventing them from germinating. On the contrary, these seeds pass intact through the digestive system of birds and the species of Capsicum are thus scattered longer. Not coincidentally, the “vaniloid transitory potential receptors” type 1 (TRPV1), which generate aggressive nociception stimuli in herbivores and mammals, signal to the brain that there is something similar to extreme heat or abrasive damage in the affected region, but in birds they do not cause any similar type of impulse to capsaicin. The rules of nature are beautiful and relentless!
Besides capsaicin (8-Methyl-N-vanillol-trans-6-nonenamide), a champion vanillaid in aggressiveness to seed destroyers, including us humans; and the alkaloid piperine of black pepper, something spicy and also bitter, there are other substances that catch fire to the palate, although with goals and intensities not always equal. Gingerol and shogaol from ginger and Thai galangal, which use the same nociceptor channels as capsaicin, are other examples, or the allyl isothiocyanate from the German Meerrettich root or Japanese wasabi, or even the alicine from raw garlic and onions. I don’t like to suffer, but I love all that.
In order to know how to fight the fire caused by food rich in capsaicin, we must understand how it interacts with us and what its weaknesses are. By placing a spicy pill in the mouth, the molecules of the compound bind to a structure of nerve cells called the ionic channel, causing this channel to open (the TRPV1). Other molecules run through the channel and flood the nerve cell, causing it to fire and send the aggression signal to the spinal cord and then to the brain. All in a fraction of a second. Our body’s response to this activation of nociceptors comes in the form of vasodilation, vascular leakage and inflammation. In other words, there is in fact no chemical burn caused by capsaicin, or even a considerable temperature increase in the affected area, just a reaction of our body to the burning molecule. It is a neurological effect and not a chemical one, such as the astringency of tannins. Therefore, after approximately 15 minutes (or some more in cases of overly spicy foods), the palate is recomposed and intact or, as they say technically, desensitized from capsaicin.
Currently, there are many scientific studies around this organic substance and its effects on health, especially its pharmaceutical applications, such as the fight against obesity, or the analgesic and antiseptic power. Pure capsaicin is an extremely pungent, hydrophobic (it does not dissolve in water), colorless and odorless compound. Thus, it is practically useless to wash it with water. This, in fact, will spread the burning to previously unaffected parts of the palate. Its solubility occurs with organic solvents such as ethyl alcohol, ether or chloroform, or with oils and fats (liposoluble). Is it a mere coincidence that greasy avocados or “sour cream” accompany Mexican glowing delights?
Very interestingly, our capsaicin nociceptors are distracted in the mouth by the comforting presence of sugars. The most famous scale for measuring the degree of burning of chilis, developed in the first decades of the 20th century by American pharmacist Wilbur Lincoln Scoville, is based precisely on an organoleptic test in which tasters are confronted with the extracts of each chili diluted in different concentrations of water with sugar, up to the point where the burning is annulled. The sugars bind to the receptors faster than capsaicin. Therefore, for our salvation in extreme situations in an Indian or Thai restaurant, just carry a lump in your pocket.
The acids, in turn, help neutralize the alkaline base of capsaicin. Cold drinks or fruit juices served contribute to this refreshing sensation and decrease the alkaloid activity. Speaking of temperature, an article published by Simon and Araújo in the Journal of General Physiology explains that TRPV1 nociceptors also show possible acid aggression and temperatures above 42°C on the mouth and face and that the presence of alcohol lowers this threshold to something around 34°C, the approximate temperature of the tongue. That is, although alcohol actually dissolves – but does not neutralize – capsaicin and cleanses the palate, the first effect is that it makes the receptors more sensitive to its stimulus, so alcoholic beverages served colder can soften its impact.
A brief account of how to clean (or spread) capsaicin
It’s impossible for me to forget one of my most incredible, though painful, gastronomic adventures while I was studying in London to get my diploma from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust. I’ve scheduled visits to the outstanding restaurants of each ethnicity, in that city that brings together a piece of each place in the world. In the best restaurant – according to local guides – for food in the province of Sichuan, China, I opted, as usual, for a complete tasting menu and, when asked about any food restriction or sensitivity to spicy, I was once again adamant when saying “no”. But with Sichuan no joke, and that warm London summer night, my unwary decision was reinforced by the wrong choice to go with the local beer, instead of choosing the wise choice of a wine suitable for battle.
The succession of dishes was absolutely incredible, loaded with perfumes, the electric Sichuan pepper and chili in all forms and, the more I ate and rejoiced with that trip of flavors, the smoother and I drank beer, nourished with a false expectation that something fresh and carbonated like that Tsing Tao Premium 1903 would contribute in some way to extinguish the flames of fire that come out of my mouth, nose and skin pores. Already soaked and red, I listen to the advice of my Chinese waitress, with a contained smile that amalgamated pinches of vengeance and pity: “Watch out for the next dish. When I gave the first bite on “pig’s ear in a chef special chilli oil”, right after feeling the so beloved texture of the pig’s ears, I was stricken by a spicy crescendo exploding internally and, desperate without knowing how far that sensation would go, I emptied a whole glass of beer on top. The outcome of what seemed to be the last sip of life was to run out to the bathroom and enter with my whole head under the cold water tap. Seeing this fool in the mirror, my face and neck showed red welts, a reaction to the excess of capsaicin and the totally reprehensible choice of the silver-drinking harmonization.
I went back to the table as if nothing had happened: I was not going to let that nice little Chinese girl win the war to this experienced sommelier and inveterate glutton. So I asked for a glass of Chenin Blanc from South Africa, with 13.5° of alcohol, endowed with sharp acidity and a touch of residual sugar; I managed to arrive alive and exultant at the end of the meal, though reflective as to the efficiencies so different from beer and wine to placate the ardor of capsaicin.
What the wine books say
In general, the literature on wine-food harmonization proclaims that we should fight fire with low alcoholic beverages, a simplistic thought based on the idea that no one puts out a fire with a hose expelling alcohol. When reviewing my library on the subject and some more researches on the internet, with very rare exceptions, what is read and repeated is that beverages with reduced alcohol content or carbonated, such as beers and sparkling wines, endowed with freshness and served at low temperatures and sometimes with residual sugars, are the proper choice against capsaicin robberies.
An important exception is the book ‘Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine and Flavour’ by Canadian François Chartier, which exposes the need for alcohol (up to 14° gr./l) to dissolve capsaicin and soothe the heat, as well as addressing in great detail the interactions with other elements of wines and a series of ingredients and dishes. Similarly, the Italian school of sommeliers currently advocates that the spicy should be opposed by the alcoholic graduation of wine in order to solubilize the capsaicin and solve its effects, by the low temperature of service to create an effect contrary to the pseudo-heat generated as a stimulus by the substance and, finally, by the residual sweetness that tends to annul the spicy.
As most books and professionals agree that sugar – and, in the particular case of good wines, in the form of residual sugar from fermentation (or the final dosage of sparkling wines) – is an attenuator of the stimuli of capsaicin, I decided to perform the tests focused on the effect of alcohol, the big point of discord between the overwhelming majority that defends low content beverages, and a few, like me, who defends the use of alcohol, to clean capsaicin.
To isolate as many varieties as possible, I cooked a very neutral mass and added at the end a horse dose of dried Italian ground “peperoncino” which, unlike many spices that bring a world of vinegar and aromas to the recipes, confer only explosive doses of pure capsaicin. All in the name of science!
I tasted the pasta with a 5° gr./l Pilsen type beer, with an extremely docile red tannin wine of 12.5° gr./l and exactly the same wine added of pure ethyl alcohol until it reaches 14.5° gr./l. The beer, according to previous experiences of extreme suffering reported here, fulfilled its role of spreading capsaicin throughout the oral cavity. After all, with approximately 95% water in its composition, it is not capable of solubilizing the burning molecule. But it is interesting that the service temperature, around 5°C, even creates an illusion of freshness in the first seconds, but then the spicy assumes the protagonism with a brutal force. François Chartier even defends in his book that carbon dioxide increases the burning sensation of capsaicin.
With the wine adulterated to 14.5° gr./l, the first impact is exactly the opposite of beer. Even cautiously served at 16°C, the attack is hot, ignites the mouth and, possibly because of this, many people believe that the path of high alcohol is wrong for spicy dishes. However, after these first seconds of “combustion,” capsaicin begins to dissolve in the alcohol and be washed from the palate more effectively. Unlike beer, this wine has cleaned and not spread causticity everywhere.
But, as in life, in the world of harmonization the secret is also in balance. The “compromise” or consensus is in having too much alcohol, enough to solubilize capsaicin, and too little alcohol to avoid its explosive impact on the mouth entrance, by making TRPV1 nociceptors very sensitive to the molecules of the spicy. That’s why the 12.5° gr./l wine was the champion. For previous experiences of this sommelier, the range between 12.5° and 13.5° is the best for working with hot dishes. Reds with up to 14° gr./l can be cooled to improve their performance, as we saw. And whites with excellent acidity and a touch of residual sugar, like some Green Wines (without carbonic gas) and the fabulous German “off-dry” Rieslings, are guaranteed success when the gastronomic adventure burns in flames.