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Beer lovers look away! You've got some serious competition on the table when it comes to pairing Indian food. We are checking out the latest developments in wine pairing for Indian cuisine and talk about some of the most pleasurable matches.
Over centuries in European and Middle Eastern wine-drinking cultures wine and food developed in tandem, living a natural and happy coexistence at the table, many dishes were actually constructed with wine in mind. And even some more exotic cuisines outside historic wine regions, like Cantonese or Vietnamese, have proved themselves amiable companions to wine. But Indian food, with its intricate spicing rich, integrated sauces and occasionally mind-blowing chilli heat, all too often proves a real challenge for wine lovers.
Hence, for a very long time, most people would have never dared to order wine, let alone fine wine with Indian food. Beer, they insisted, was the go-to, especially with spicier dishes. Finally, this has changed and today a growing number of Indian restaurants are offering wines intended both to flatter the food and to create unexpectedly delicious synergies.
But for sommeliers and consumers alike there is an indispensable rule to follow to make this match success and that is to set aside the European or American approach to putting wine together with food. The classical red wine with red meats, white with fish and vegetables just doesn’t work here.
And there is one more thing to consider: Indian cuisine is about as far from homogenous as it can get. Kashmiri cooking is different from Keralan cooking, both are different from what you might find in Kolkata in Bengal or Mumbai, and so it goes.
But why are there so many different cuisines in this country? Every 200 or 300 years Indian food has been influenced by a different culture. And they all left their marks on it. There is the Awadhi cuisine, the cuisine of the Moghul rulers in Uttar Pradesh. The Moghuls ruled India for nearly a thousand years. They brought hung yogurt, and beets, dried seeds, and nuts. They were into poetry, architecture, and music; they used to feed their goats gold leaf thinking that it would make the goats taste like gold. Their cuisine was very flavourful, rich, creamy cuisine. Then there is the influence of the French in Pondicherry, the Portuguese in Goa—vindaloo, which classically is pork cooked in vinegar and spices - comes from the Portuguese influence. Farsi refugees in Mumbai and Delhi, the Sri Lankan influence; and the spice route influence that brought spices and styles from Thailand and China.
That explains why it is impossible to generally say which wine goes well with Indian food. But if you give it a thought you will realize that if for example, you were to ask a sommelier what goes great with European food he will not come up with the ONE universal wine. So saying that a lightly sweet Gewuerztraminer or any other off-dry white ( a choice that has been recommended all too often in the first stages of this journey, before it entered a whole new level ) is ideal with Indian food is about as nonsensical as saying, Chardonnay goes great with American food.
It seems that pairing Indian food with wine is really a task for advanced wine lovers and very open minded sommeliers who don't shy away from unusual combinations. And especially since the quality of Indian restaurants all over the world has evolved a lot, naturally the demand for interesting and high-quality wine pairings is on the rise. Gone are the days when the British who arrived in India, didn’t have an alcohol tradition and therefore brought Scotch and beer, the latter to wash down food. Beer as we know wipes out the spices and destroys the flavors. To the British, that was great back in the day. Not anymore, thank God.
So, matchmaking is always tricky, but let us look into some aspects of Indian cuisine and try to come up with some suggestions and advise what is to be considered when starting this romance.
The biggest challenge here is to figure out how wine can bring balance to a dish.
Wines that are high in alcohol or tannins, or which are discernibly oaky, are usually a not so good pick. This is why many New World Cabernet Sauvignons, Bordeaux and Barolo are difficult to pair with Indian food.
Creating counterintuitive pairings is a necessity, going against one's reflex desire to pair lamb with red wine, for example. In fact, with almost any lamb curry, white wine is the much better choice, such as a dry Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. But even moderately sweet wines with only a hint of residual sugar are not off the table. A lamb kebab, cooked in the tandoor and served with a spicy sauce, would actually benefit from such a wine. Think a German Riesling Kabinett or Spaetlese, or a demi-sec Vouvray from the Loire Valley.
Among reds, we need to look to earthier, spicier wines, like Syrah and Cabernet Franc from the northern Rhône, especially those that are not generously fruity or oaky. As a matter of fact, many spices used in Indian preparations can often be surprisingly tannic. To balance this out wines high in acid and fresher, savory reds with few tannins should be served. Although red Burgundies and other wines made of or with Pinot Noir, often cited as among the most versatile of wines, do not work that well.
Reds from Languedoc-Roussillon, particularly those with Grenache and Carignan. can be very successful, as can a Rioja Gran Reservas with enough age to have mellowed the tannins.
What about Bordeaux? It is widely considered to be THE supreme red that should not be missing on any upscale wine list. But watch out: these wines may turn bitter with some Indian dishes. But there can be good places to put highly tannic wines - a Punjabi vegetable dish with a yogurt sauce, that’s where your big red can go.
And what about the heat? Many sommeliers involved with Indian food believe that alcohol increases the perception of spicy heat. But that is only one side to look at it. As it turns out that alcohol is not so much of an issue. On the contrary - you have to be slightly higher in alcohol, especially in reds, because otherwise they get lost. Zinfandel or Monastrells from eastern Spain hold up pretty well, and even Sherry can be introduced as a partner in crime with its higher alcohol but low tannins.
There is a saying that Champagne goes with everything. But be very careful in your choice when it comes to Indian food and fizzy wine. Especially Extra Brut and Brut Nature Champagnes can be too austere and spoil it all. Rather go for more mellow and fruity sparkling wines such as a nice Cartizze from Veneto.
While general notions and tentative guidelines of what sorts of wine will work with Indian foods can be helpful, the cuisine is too diverse and subtle to avoid numerous exceptions and surprises.
So, given all the complexities in pairing Indian dishes and wine - how to play it safe? First, in a fine Indian restaurant with a good wine list and a sommelier, it is always best to ask for help. The sommelier has profound knowledge about the restaurant's cuisine and will be able to advise.
Second, if choosing wines at home, be experimental and not afraid to make mistakes. And let's not forget one thing: wine selections can be emotional rather than rational reflections on what pairs best.