A lot of people still think that wine isn’t a good match with spicy food but our final session of What Food, What Wine? judging this week suggested that there’s no reason for winelovers to throw in the towel. The success (or otherwise) of the pairings did however depend on the heat of the curries and how ‘wet’ or dry they were.
We had four to consider - a chicken korma, a lamb rogan josh, a chicken tikka masala (which appeared in last year’s line up) and stir fried prawns with tanjore spices, the signature dish of the Cinnamon Kitchen in the City where the judging took place. (Amazing - you can find the recipe here)
The situation was slightly unreal in that we had each dish separately with boiled rice whereas in many restaurants a range of different dishes would have been put on the table at once along with sides like raita and chutney. But it was the most comprehensive attempt I’ve witnessed to find out which style of wines suits which type of curry and produced some fascinating insights.
Shop-bought or home-made?
There’s a big difference between inexpensive supermarket curries and a good takeaway or homemade recipe using freshly ground spices and fresh herbs. The prawn dish was far more aromatic and complex - and subsequently more challenging to match. I’m sticking my neck out here but I’d say on the strength of this tasting that it’s probably only worth spending over £10 on a bottle with a subtly spiced dish, served Western-style on its own - as you get in high end restaurants.
Consider the protein
If the basic ingredient has a prominent flavour it can dictate the match, despite the style of the dish. For instance lamb has much more influence on a pairing (inclining you towards a red) than chicken where it’s the sauce that’s all important
Beware whole spices ...
A rogue chilli or whole cardamom can really blow your wine out of the water. Fresh, well-sourced whole spices will be more powerful than mass-produced ground ones
...and heat build-up
Spicing plays havoc with the palate in ways you don’t quite anticipate. It can anaethetise the palate to an extent but with some dishes there was a slow build of heat making each mouthful taste progressively spicier. Which is where cooling raita comes in ....
So which style of wine pairs best?
Judging by the wines we tried a fruity rosé is the best all rounder - a good default choice when you’re in an Indian restaurant.
White wines - even aromatic ones - are trickier than you might think. Sauvignon Blanc in particular is not the success it tends to be with other dishes. A touch of sweetness certainly helps as does a touch of minerality, according to the Cinnamon Kitchen’s group wine buyer Laurent Chaniac who was one of the judges. Gewurztraminer can be great but doesn’t go with everything.
Reds can work particularly if they’re lightly chilled but they need to be quite soft without intrusive tannins. Unless you’re a chilli thrillophile you don’t want to ramp up the heat with a load of spicy oak.
Personally I’m dying to see the results. I’ll link to them as soon as they’re published.
I should make clear that I am a senior (paid) judge on What Food What Wine but they haven't asked or commissioned me to write this and the previous post which represent my views and not theirs!