Beverage Report: Too hot for comfort

A good wine to drink with a chilli-rich dish? There's just no such thing
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An all-purpose musical insult runs along the lines of: "When the London Philhar-monic plays Beethoven's Fifth, Beethoven loses." In matching food with wine, the line might be adapted thus: "When chilli peppers play a decent bottle, the bottle loses." These ruminations are occupying my thoughts because I recently had the pleasure of judging a grapes 'n' chillis competition at Leith's School of Food & Wine.

The competition, called Chilli Chile Bain Bain, was sponsored by Errazuriz. The competitors, students at the school, had to create recipes to harmonise with two admirable Errazuriz wines (Chardonnay and Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon). And while some of the food was fantastically good, it was hard to find anything that really went with the wines. Where the matches did work, it was because the cooks had muted the chillis to the point of sensory invisibility.

The experience confirmed my previous investigations in the field. By all means buy the two wines in that particular competitive fray: they're widely available, from Threshers and elsewhere, for around pounds 5.50 (Chardonnay) and pounds 7.50 (Cabernet Sauvignon). But don't let them near any dish with a chilli content.

So dispirited was I to see the chillis beat the wine, I decided to conduct an informal experiment while dining at home with just the radio for company. I cooked up a moderately fiery concoction involving a red mullet with Thai seasoning including some incendiary bird's-eye chillis. I opened two bottles, one Esporao, a Portuguese white from Oddbins priced pounds 6.99, and the other a Meursault 1991, Roger Caillot, which I bought several years ago from the same source. The Meursault is from a minor vintage and a minor supplier, and was likely to be well past its prime, I thought, so would not be ruined by association with the food.

There were no surprises on the chilli-versus-wine front. The hot stuff nullified the wine. But the wine, well, that was a different matter. Honey-coloured, richly nutty, flavours of toffee and butterscotch on the palate. Definitely blowsy, but thrillingly delicious nonetheless. I was probably the only person in Britain stupid enough to have kept it so long, and I count myself lucky for being so stupid.

There are two unrelated morals to this story. One: follow the rules about matching wine with fiery food. Anyone who says you can pair off spicy Asian dishes with fine wine is deluded. Two: don't slavishly follow rules about "patchy" years, "minor" producers, or "drinking up" before a wine starts its decline. If you're foolish or forgetful enough to leave a mid-range bottle too long, you may end up with a memorable experience.

Incidentally, if you're seeking an alternative to lager for spicy mealtimes, you may be interested to hear of the "Ultimate Curry Beer" title in the 1998 Beauty of Hops English Ale Awards. It is UCB, brewed by Wolverhampton & Dudley, and was brewed for the competition. Available only at pubs, but worth looking out for.

Completely off the subject: please place a call to Tanners (01743 234 455). It's been cultivating its relations (if you'll pardon the expression) with Champagne growers making their own wine rather than selling it to the big Champagne houses. One of the results is Rene Geoffroy Cuvee Prestige Brut (pounds 18.80), a wine made with a high proportion of Chardon-nay and combining vivacious acidity with fantastic yeasty fruit. Tons more character than a lot of famous-name bubbles selling for comparable prices. For drinking now or keeping - but not as long as I kept my Meursault. I think.

WINE BOX

THE WEEK'S BEST BUYS

**Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay 1997, Marlborough (Fuller's and Liberty Wines, pounds 6.99)

*Virginie Sauvignon Blanc 1997 (Fuller's, pounds 3.99)

TWO WONDERFUL whites this week, one from down under and one from just around the corner. The Crawford Chardonnay has lovely, deep, concentrated fruit, and shows what can be achieved in the absence of oak from superior grapes vinified with care and skill. If you want to see how good a wood- free Chardonnay can be, pick up a bottle tout de suite from Fuller's or Liberty (0171 720 5350). The Virginie is fragrant to the nose and very full on the palate, with ripe, melony, peachy fruit balanced by good acidity. A great buy at the price, for drinking either with food or before it.

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