Wine and Spice

So what do you drink with your favourite Indian food?

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Wine and Spice

Do you go for the British tradition of ordering the hottest, most mouth-numbing dish on the menu and put the flames out with buckets of lager?

Or do you indulge in an aromatic meal complimented with a delicate glass of fruity, lightly chilled wine? Or start off with the second then end up doing the first?

Now, I'm no wine connoisseur but I do know a nice glass of something makes a good meal even better. So what do I look for when matching wine to an Indian dish? This is a pretty tricky question in itself really, as Indian food is so varied it may be packed with chillies, or flavoured with coconut or fruit or meat or fish... so basically the drinks you enjoy with each dish can be as varied as they are.

Hardly surprising then that a chilled beer is such a favourite. But the thing is, nice though it is, that's basically a cold, sweet drink and it doesn't really enhance your dining experience. Indian meals are all about balancing flavours, so by getting your wine and food combination just right will only add to your experience.

So let's look at what works and why. Think about the acidity of the dish to begin with. More acidic food (for example, a salad with a lemon dressing) tastes great with a slightly acidic wine, but a sweeter dish loves a drier one. Another simple rule is that a big flavoured meal will trudge all over a delicate little tipple, so go for a huge, robust red to match your dish. And of course, the reverse applies. A lighter, milder dish calls for a more delicate wine.

Generally speaking, your white wine needs to be sweet, fruity and full flavoured with low acidity and a lower percentage alcohol, such as a Sauvignon Blanc or a Reisling. Some industry foodie experts suggest that you should always go for a white rather then a red, but I'm not so sure (either way, it's good fun to experiment...).

Red wines have higher tannins (which comes from the skin and stalks of the grape) and this, combined with the chilli, can leave a slight bitter aftertaste. You have to be a little more choosy but I have experienced some delicious red wine and Indian food combinations, mainly with fruity reds with low tannin such as a Merlot, Beaujolais or even a juicy Malbec and you won't go far wrong.

Below is a quick guide for you. If you have any more suggestions, do let us all know!

White Wines

As we mentioned, pairing white wines with spicy food works as whites tend to be drier with lower tannins so their flavour doesn't linger too long on the palate.

To recap:
• Choose low acidity wine such as Sauvignon Blanc or a Reisling
• Sweeter work better
• Try a bigger, bolder white to stand up against the spicier dishes
• Keep the wine nicely chilled (some 'experts' think your white wine should be served at room temperature but I – as I imagine you too – do not)

A German wine from the Rhein region that is a good all-rounder for Indian dishes. It's a highly aromatic wine that is probably the most accommodating for pairing with complex spice flavours. On the palate you experience apple, peach, pear and a delicate floral undertone with a splash of honey - all in all a crisp, refreshing, versatile wine. Fab.

Chenin Blanc or Pinot Blanco
Medium spiced dishes with a cream or yoghurt sauce, including tandoori dishes, beautifully compliment these wines. These two are dry and crisp with an almost grassy aroma. Go for the ones from South America over the French versions.

Sauvignon Blanc
This is great with spiced seafood dishes, as well as some lightly spiced snacks such as samosa and pakora. Sauvignon Blanc is a dry, slightly acidic wine that can be fruity with citrusy, melon flavours or herby with thyme and coriander undertones, depending on the variety. Cloudy Bay from New Zealand or French wines from Anjou or Savennieres are good too (trust me here!).

Hot and sour dishes luuuuurve Gewürztraminer. Its dry sweetness compliments the spicy, tangy rich complex flavours of the bigger Indian sauces, especially those with tamarind or vinegar flavouring such as a Vindaloo .

Buttery, cream sauces work well with the lighter Chardonnays. This wine is aged in oak barrels and has a sweet vanilla flavour, but avoid the heavy, aged Chardonnay's that crash head-on with Indian dishes. However, a good quality, lightly aged Australian or Chilean Chardonnay or a Chilled California Chardonnay will be fantastic.

Sparkling Wines and Champagne
Surprisingly, sparkling wines work extremely well with pretty much all Indian dishes. So if you're like me and like a little fizz in your life then whoo hoo! These bubbly beauties help to awaken and refresh the taste buds with each mouthful, and the sweet dryness compliments the complex Indian flavours really well. Cider works too, oddly.

Dessert wines love most Indian sweets. All I'm going to say here is just try a sweet Muscat with Gulab Jamun and you'll never look back.

Red Wines

If you prefer red wine then you need to be a little more selective to ensure there isn't a clash of flavours going on. I've found it best to:
• Choose fruity reds with low tannins such as Merlots, Pinot Noirs
• Avoid wines with high tannins as they give a bitter aftertaste
• Avoid full-bodied wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon

Goes nicely with aromatic dishes that have thick deep sauces, such as rich lamb curry like a bhuna. The Shiraz grape grows in clusters and is native of the Rhone valley in France, so the wine is peppery with subtle dark cocoa undertones. Australian Shiraz and Spanish wines are just superb.

Pinot Noir
Lightly spiced dishes such as meaty lamb kebabs or dry mutton dishes go well with a Pinot Noir. From the Burgundy region of France, this grape is the hardest to grow and a difficult wine to ferment. But this inner turmoil imparts a peppermint, berry and tomato flavour which, if not too overpowering, really accentuates Indian food. The wine from Carneros Valley and most from New Zealand are excellent examples of this.

This massive, deep wine compliments big, spicy chicken dishes with a tomato base, like a Jalfrezi. The grape is exclusive to California and all that sunshine and positivity in the air creates a fruity wine with bold citrus and smooth vanilla flavours. Frog's Leap Zinfandel is a really nice one to try.

For strongly spiced dishes, such as a madras, this wine is a knock-out. These wines come from the Bordeaux region of France and have a much lower acidity than cabernet. You'll discover a wide a range of herby, rich fruity flavours coming through such as cherry and plumb, finished off with an almost spicy aroma of cloves and bay leaves. All of which come together to make a great combination with the spicier dishes.

This grape produces the Beaujolais wine, a lovely light red with an almost exotic, fruity banana flavour. Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine to come out after the harvest and should be consumed immediately; it has low alcohol content and goes well with strong flavours, like Tandoori dishes.

Other red wines that compliment Indian food include good quality Rioja, Cotes du Rhone, Costieres de Nimes and Corbieres Wines of Southern France, Grenache, Barbera and Viognier.

Last point – just find what works for you and your favourite meal. Bitter has its place, we've seen that cider makes a refreshing change and how champagne compliments any Indian meal.

Main thing is, have fun, experiment – and do let me know how it goes!

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