It was going to be a simple dinner. Some piping hot onion khuzhambu (tamarind curry) and fried potato cubes with brown rice. Just as I was setting the table our good friends who are wine enthusiasts, wanted to stop by. I ran to my wine collection in panic, for Indian food and wine, is like a Hindu Muslim wedding—complex and very often, it is not a match made in heaven. The complexity of Indian spices and pungency clashes with every wine bouquet and aroma. Wine bouquet refers to flavors that are derived from fermentation and ageing like the vanilla flavor that develops from ageing in oak barrels. Flowery, fruity and herbal aromas are derived from the variety of grapes.
When selecting a wine, the mantra is, “Simple wine with complex food, and complex wine with simple food.”
Spicy food goes well with wine that is less tannic. Tannins come from the stalks and skins of the grapes, and give the wine a tinge of bitterness. Wines fermented in oak barrels tend to hold more tannins—so stay away from oaky cabernets.
Since our palates and individual tastes are varied, here are some general guidelines for choosing wines with your favorite Indian food
White Wine Varietals
White wines are low in tannins and are generally dry. They do not stay long in your palate, so they tend to pair well with spicy food.
Gewürztraminer: This wine is from the Alsace region of France. It is a dry, sweet wine, which complements the rich complex flavors of Indian and Thai cuisine.
Sauvignon Blanc: This wine is also known as Fume Blanc and is a dry white wine. It has a fruity (citrus and melons), or herb flavors (cilantro, thyme). Examples are Sula wines, Kendall Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve, Chateau St. Jean, Chateau Souverain and Cloudy Bay (New Zealand).
Chenin Blanc: This wine is also known as Pinot Blanco (South American), and is originally from the Loire Valley in France. It is a dry, grassy crisp wine. Sula wines from India and French wines from Anjou or Savennieres are other varieties.
Chardonnay: This is the most popular wine in the world. Since it is aged in oak barrels, this wine has a sweet vanilla flavor and its fermentation produces a rich buttery taste unlike the Sauvignon Blanc that has a slightly acidic taste to it. Therefore, this wine goes well with creamy sauces. A good Chardonnay from Chile or Australia that is lightly aged or a chilled California Chardonnay also works.
Pinot Gris: Drawn from the Alsace region in France, it has very complex flavors like cinnamon, lemon and ginger and goes well with almost all spicy foods.
Red Wine Varietals
We have to be very careful with red wines because they can completely clash with the food. Avoid wines with high tannins (they give a bitter after taste). Choose fruity reds like Malbec, Merlots, and Pinot Noirs (low on tannins). Avoid full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon.
Shiraz: This grape grows in clusters and the wine is quite peppery, with chocolate flavors and it is native to the Rhone valley in France. The Australian Shiraz and Spanish wines can be served with Indian food.
Pinot Noir: From Burgundy in France, this grape is the hardest to grow and the most difficult wine to ferment. That explains the hefty price. This has peppermint, berry and tomato flavors— one has to be careful in choosing a good pinot.
Champagne Rose: This sparkling pink wine is made by adding red pinot juice to white wine. It is a versatile wine and can be quite expensive but is very tasty with Indian food.
Zinfandel: An exclusive California grape, this wine is fruity with citrus and vanilla. Frog’s Leap Zinfandel, comes to mind.
Merlot: This grape is widely planted in the Bordeaux region of France. It has a lower acidity and astringency than cabernet, with a range of herbal, fruity (currant, plum, cherry), and spicy(coves and bay leaf) flavors to it. Columbia Crest Merlot goes fabulously well with spicy lamb.
Gamay: This grape produces the Beaujolais wine. It is a fruity (banana), light wine. Beaujolais Nouveau is the first set to come out after the harvest and should be consumed immediately. Look for a French wine with low alcohol (less than 12%)
Here are some other red wines that go well with Indian food: Chilean Malbec, Riojas, Costieres de Nimes and Corbieres Wines of Southern France, Grenache, Beaujolais, Barbera, and Viognier too.
My friends arrived and I served a Chilean Malbec and an Alsatian Gewurztraminer to go with the onion khuzhambu and potato fry. The low tannic Malbec slides smooth with the tamarind curry and the Gewurtz makes the union of Indian food to wine, absolutely perfect.
Praba Iyer is a chef instructor, food writer and a judge for cooking contests. She specializes in team building classes through cooking for tech companies in the Bay Area. [email protected]
First published in November of 2016.