Not the cuisine for reds

Not the cuisine for reds

Having varied influences, and being traditionally spicy and largely vegetarian, Indian cuisine is best paired with white wines. However, a few red blends might also work, notes Nick Pringle. 

On my recent visit to India, at a big blue Indian wedding that I was invited to, the sheer range of food blew my mind. There was, of course, champagne in the beginning of the evening. Most old-timers soon shifted to Scotch.

The younger ones, however, seemed to go for wine. Curious as ever, and perhaps looking for an excuse to talk to the beautiful women, I started quizzing them on their wine habits. 

“Why a red in summer?” I asked one. “And how will you pair it with the spicy dinner that’s sure to follow?”

She gave me a quizzical look and told me red was healthier - something about the tannins or anti-oxidants (she couldn’t remember which). More importantly, she had “no intention of pairing it with dinner. Indian food doesn’t pair with red wine and I don’t drink white!”

At that point, I realised that a large number of Indian wine drinkers felt that white wines were just for beginners and that red was the only “elegant” one to be seen with.

Christina Fischer, a famous German sommelier, recently published a book Making sense of Food and Wine – Concepts for Combinations. According to her, it is important to have the understanding that every wine changes in its connection with food, and that this is an important prerequisite for making perfect combinations. So what does that mean for a cuisine that has varied influences, is traditionally spicy and largely vegetarian? Indian food is characterised by its generous use of spices like cardamom, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, curry powder, fennel, fenugreek, mace, peppercorns, and many, many more. The use of chillies or pepper is extensive in Indian cooking, and a popular remedy for it is the use of curd or yoghurt, which cools and soothes. 

Very tannic red wine, especially young Bordeaux reds, do not soothe and hence do not make a great pair with spicy food. They leave an astringent or drying impression in the mouth. There is, however, a loophole. If you are drinking a red wine and are presented with say Kashmiri cuisine, with warm spices or something from the south with black pepper, you can make it work with a fruit-forward, ripe red wine with subtle tannins.  Such a wine will go perfectly with rogan josh, tawa sabzi, even bhindi masala. The slightly peppery but still rich and ripe fruit forward Shiraz-Cabernet blend would also go well with these foods. 

A wine blend with a sweet liquorice hint about it that mirrors the flavours of star anise, pairs very well with Bengali and Goan cuisine. If you are a red wine drinker and enjoy the tannins, look for red wines with smooth, well-integrated oak. If you feel like you’re chomping on plywood, you’ll know you’ve got the wrong wine. However, for pork dishes like Goan pork sorpotel or pork vindaloo, Merlot wine variety is always the best pairing. A Chardonnay or a Pinot Noir wine variety would go well with anything rich like cream, cashew-nut, coconut-based gravies. In this case though, it’s the refreshing bubbles and acidity that work to add a fresh edge to a dish. Much like you would squeeze a wedge of lime over your food. The inherent buttery nuttiness of Chardonnay makes it the perfect wine for Mughalai cuisine as well. 

There is much to be said about a perfectly chilled glass of easy drinking white wine. Not drinking white wine would be missing out on so many opportunities for bringing out the very best flavours in a painstakingly prepared Indian meal. Many sommeliers recommend a fruity white wine, with some remaining residual sweetness, to go with Indian food. 

It works well with paneer, with deep fried pakoras, a whole host of vegetarian sabzis, seafood, chicken curries, and just about anything with garlic or fried onions! Simply put, a Riesling wine variety would best complement any spicy Indian dish, mostly vegetarian ones. If, for example, you find yourself in coastal India and faced with spicy seafood you’d probably want a bottle of the Gewurztraminer wine variety by your side. The ever-so-slight sweetness of the Gewurztraminer complements the spices used in Indian seafood. The fresh acidity in this white wine blend lifts the delicate texture of fresh seafood, especially a prawn or crab curry. 

(The writer is the director of sales, Hardys (Accolade UK) - Southern Europe, Africa, Middle East, South and Central America)

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