Of all the different aspects of wine and food matching I write about, wine and Indian food is the most controversial. What type of wine works best, and indeed whether you should drink wine at all is the subject of endlessly heated exchanges. The subject has recently come up again with the introduction of a number of wines that are specifically designed to go with spicy food. Was this, at last, the solution?
I enlisted the help of Vicky Bhogal, a talented young British-born Indian cookery writer and TV presenter and author of the delightful book Cooking with Mummyji to put the wines through their paces. By her own admission, Vicky is a wine novice who only drinks occasionally. “Like a lot of Asian people I know I’m quite intimidated by wine. In my family we wouldn’t normally have alcohol on the table during a meal. At home I might start with a glass of champagne or a sparkling wine-based cocktail like a bellini but that would be it.”
We kicked off by tasting a slection of the new wines on offer: Wine for Spice, Balti Wines and Pink Elephant, a Portuguese rosé in which I have to declare an interest in that I was one of a panel of wine writers and other industry professionals (unpaid, I hasten to add) who were invited to a tasting on which the final product was based. Vicky - the kind of wine drinker at whom these ranges must presumably be targetted - preferred it to the other wines on offer but was on the whole distinctly unimpressed. And while I could see the Wine for Spice range was ingenious (semi-sparkling and off-dry, mimicking the appeal of a lager) I wouldn’t have drunk any of the other wines for pleasure either.
We also tasted a number of other wines - an Alsace Pinot Gris, a couple of new world Sauvignon Blancs, an Australian Semillon, a Californian Pinot Noir, a Cabernet/Merlot from Western Australia, a Rioja, a Douro red.and a bottle of Champagne. The stand-out wine for Vicky was the Pinot Gris, a 2004 Lucien Albrecht, Cuvée Marie Cecile. “It’s the first white wine I’ve tasted that I really like. It also provides the touch of sweetness I think you need to balance the spiciness of Indian food."
Next we tried the wines with a range of dishes which were all put on the table at once. “We don’t have starters at home” said Vicky. Some - a Prawn Malawar (prawns in a coconut curry), Chicken Jalfrezi, Lamb Tikka Masala and Saag Aloo (potatoes in spinach curry) were dishes she had boiught in from her local takeaway. She also made two dishes herself, a chicken curry with coriander and pilau rice with cashew nuts. The Chicken Jalfrezi was the hottest dish (the protein-based dish is normally the spiciest dish on the table, Vicky explained) but none was eye-wateringly hot. There was also a side dish of yoghurt to add as required. “You should be able to customize an Indian meal to your taste.”
We first went back to the wines we had enjoyed most on their own and again the Pinot Gris came out top, with the Champagne a surprising second. I liked the Peter Lehmann Semillon but Vicky found it a touch too strong. We then tried a couple of the wines by which we had been less impressed such as Wine by Spice’s Viceroy White. “I’m not sure this doesn’t make the food taste hotter” said Vicky “although the Balti wines are slightly more pleasant with food. And I didn’t like the Pink Elephant as much as I did on its own.” (I thought it stood up pretty well)
The Sauvignon Blancs performed better if we made a selection of the dishes.Vicky’s own coriander chicken, the prawns in coconut sauce and the sag aloo whose sharper, more herbal flavours were particularly good with a herbaceous 2006 Groote Post Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa.
We struggled with the reds. The sweet fruit of the La Crema Pinot Noir which Vicky had enjoyed on its own was stripped out by the food while the heat of the dishes accentuated the alcohol and tannins of the other wines. I’ve drunk red wines successfully with spicy food before but they’ve either been less tannic, cooler in temperature than the ones we tried or served with lamb-based dishes that are a natural foil for red wines such as rogan josh or marinated whole leg of lamb (raan), a combination recommended to me recently by the pubisher of Sommelier India, Reva K Singh. The Balti reds, both poor, did not improve with food.
We also tried a Kingfisher lager which I thought worked rather better than Vicky did and a lassi which Vicky made by the simplest imaginable method of spooning 2-3 heaped tablespoons of live yoghurt into a glass of water and giving it a stir. “You can add salt and a pinch of garam masala but I quite like it plain.” It was the one drink we both finished which underlines just how refreshing it was.
So, despite the introduction of these new ‘curry friendly’ wines, the problem remains which is that the kind of wines that work with Indian food (by and large off-dry, fruity or fizzy) are not necessarily the ones wine-lovers most want to drink. That especially applies to serious reds which are either too tannic when they’re young or too fragile to cope when they’re more mature and mellow. If you want to drink a particular style of wine you’re better to adjust your meal so that certain dishes and tastes predominate, as we did with the Sauvignons, or serve it Western style, with one or two dishes at a time.
If you serve Indian food the traditional way your best bet on the basis of this tasting - and Interestingly Vicky and I agreed on the wines we enjoyed most - would be an Alsace Pinot Gris (a good choice when you eat out) a fruity rosé like Pink Elephant (good for converting beer-drinking friends to the virtues of drinking wine with spicy food), champagne - or, for a less indulgent occasion, Cava. In fact given the success of both rosé and sparkling wine a sparkling rosé might well be the answer we’re all looking for.
This article first appeared in the November 2007 issue of Decanter.