Hardcore foodies and curry lovers are always on the prowl for the ultimate wine pairing but it’s not that easy to find, with many venues lacking in training regarding basic wine pairings and Cobra still the reigning curry buddy of choice. Found in over 95% of curry houses across the UK, Cobra’s founder, Karan Bilimoria arrived in the UK from India to study and determined the lager being served with Indian cuisine over here was far too gassy to compliment the dishes. He swiftly designed a smoother less carbonated beer with a brewer in Bangalore and launched the following year in 1990. This stroke of genius, combined with the rise of the post-pub curry house movement, made the brand synonymous with the cuisine and reinforced an affectionate association with the majority of Britons. But curry dining hasn’t been a drunken grab and devour after last orders for some time and the evolution of the authentic Indian fine dining experience calls for a more elegant liquid partner. Not only is wine a significantly better partner to spicy food when it comes to the overall tasting experience, but it offers the opportunity to enhance and elevate flavour and texture, evoking a sensory dining experience in-line with the rise of the high-end restaurant culture.
Generally, it’s broadly advisory to matching big, flavourful foods with big, flavourful wines and light dishes with lighter-style wines, but spiced food offers additional challenges. There are so many different kinds of spice for a start! Each has a unique aroma, flavour and heat so making the best wine choice for a dish depends on the particular combination of spices used in the recipe, the nature and texture of the sauce and the weight of the dish. To compound the complexity of the individual dishes, most are served with a variety of chutneys, gravies and sauces that create an even more complex flavour profile. So, it makes sense that the antithesis would be a simple, well-defined wine to create balance for the overall experience.
The level of heat in your curry should be your first consideration- a tannic, earthy wine risks detonating the spice in a dish to an intolerable degree and, while tannins can often cleanse the palate, at high levels they are mouth-drying and may mask any refreshing acidity the wine offers. Masala, Vindaloo and Jalfrezi dishes all have a similar sauce profile being highly spiced with rich tomato and curry paste blended to form a thick gravy. The key to pairing wine with these dishes, as established, is first to respect the spice level. A fruity, supple red slightly chilled would cushion heat with juicy red fruit notes but a cool rosé with a good acid backbone would both diffuse heat with it’s higher sugar content and refresh the palate.
Dishes with a sour quality benefit most from high acid, as does a thick sauce, but higher alcohol wines are best avoided as they accentuate the chilli heat. Lighter-bodied, softer red wines with lower tannins offer much better pairings. On the flip side, a glass of more savoury wine with a slow-cooked red meat dish can also be sublime so it’s about striking balance between the sauce heat and texture and the protein element. A rich and complex Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese would be a fragrant dream with grilled lamb dishes of a lower heat scale, for example.
A thirst-quenching freshness and a contributing ompfh to a flavour profile are ideal qualities for a wine pairing and oily dishes alongside crisp acidic wines, like Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, balance beautifully. Rich sauces can reduce the perception of acidity so lighter, creamy dishes are better with this style of white. A lightly oaked Chardonnay with lively tropical fruit and a hint of vanilla alongside a keen acidity would be the ideal partner for a chicken korma. An off-dry Chenin Blanc with a little bottle age and mineral complexity would be divine as well, given the naturally high acid of the grape, especially with a touch of residual sugar. A Sauvignon Blanc with tropical gooseberry notes and a herbaceous edge lends itself to fish or chicken dishes prepared with fenugreek leaves and would balance a yoghurt based creamy sauce with ease. Heavily oaked wines in any style should be approached with caution when pairing with Indian cuisine given the bitter aftertaste that can be evoked when combined with spices such as cumin and coriander.
Creamy dishes like Pasanda and Tikka Masala made with slow-cooked red meats can take on a different focus altogether as the fats in the yoghurt and cream diffuse a high level of spice making the texture a primary feature. This opens up the opportunity to play with pairing medium-bodied red wines with moderate tannin like a Cabernet Franc or a juicy Merlot. Still, plenty of fruit but with more depth and weight to enhance the protein element while ensuring the cream offsets the potential tannin vs spice clash.
A dry sparkling wine with a lean green profile would be a great match to a rich herbaceous sauce made from leafy greens with onion, spices and cream. Grillo with its citrus backbone and saline minerality would enhance this style of dish enormously, as would a crisp Chenin or a Sauvignon Blanc.
There are endless opportunities to enhance an Indian dining experience with wine and much scope for experimentation, but for a truly authentic experience one must follow the taster’s rule of ‘what grows together, goes together’ and look to the mother-land for inspiration. While India may not spring immediately to mind as a wine-producing country, this misconception is being challenged by a growing number of pioneering producers with skill, passion and ambition as their driving force. The curry trade contributes more than 5bn annually to the British economy, to give an idea of the scale of the cuisine’s popularity, and the opportunity for the consumer to pair with premium Indian wines is long overdue.
Wines in India have stepped up to the mark, filling a hole in the market with their USP as the UK’s only premium Indian wine importer. The premium wines come straight from the heart of Nashik, India’s wine capital 135km North-East of Mumbai. The tropical climate promotes ripe fruit production while the land elevation offers a high diurnal temperature range of around 16 degrees C, allowing for the development of keen acidity, structure and rich varietal character. Temperatures can rocket as harvest approaches and the vintner’s primary focus is to achieve phenolic ripeness before the sugar content of the berries becomes so high it compromises fermentation to dryness. Such tropical conditions create the potential for 2 harvests a year so there are commonly 2 prunings a year; one around April/May before the monsoon season hits and the second before the August/September growing cycle. A varied range of nutrient-rich soil types, from well-drained sandy variants to complex metamorphic formations created by the weathering of rock, also lends character to Indian wines. There is no shortage of foreign consultants from around the globe working within the Indian wine trade and French and Italian varietals dominate the plantings and current export market.
A large-scale expansion in the Indian wine industry was experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a result of globalization and driven by the growth of an affluent middle class. India is now the scene of the fastest growing competitive beverage market in the world producing elegant, relevant World-class wines. Confidently adapting and innovating, India has the potential to become the driving force of the Asian wine scene. Sweet news indeed for the hardcore foodies and curry lovers, now enabled to elevate and innovate for the ultimate Indian dining experience.
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