A wine-tasting dinner, someone said the other day, is the bourgeoisie's way of getting sloshed and not feeling bad about it. In Delhi, it has become a regular ritual, mostly avoidable, but not when you know that the man who is to guide you through the evening, took over the world's oldest continually running vineyard after the incumbent committed suicide. It is not a great feeling to be a suicide victim's successor, but Rowald Hepp, director of Schloss Vollrads, a German winery with a distinguished lineage, seemed too happy to let it affect his life.
Hepp spent the evening talking about Rieslings, a subject that is dear to my heart. Conventional wine wisdom dictates that the Gewurtztraminer, a delicately sweet white wine from Alsace, France, pairs best with Indian food. I don't buy the theory and I was proved right by a bunch of winenovice journalists, who, after a pairing of some finger-licking-good food from Masala Art at Taj Palace with Gewurtztraminer, said it did not work. What most people don't realise is that North Indian dishes are not 'hot'-the delicate harmony of spices isn't the same as the chilli-hot pungency of a vindaloo, which most English wine critics confuse for standard Indian fare. Just chilled beer or a cheap sweet wine, like the Blue Nun of yore, can work with a Brick Lane vindaloo, but give me a Riesling with kebabs and curries.
It used to be said that a wine of a region pairs best only with its food, so the ease with which a Riesling, a cold-weather grape, marries with North Indian staples is indeed a divine mystery, because no two cooking styles are as different from each other as German and ours. When I had pointed this out Ernie Loosen, the man known as the ambassador of Riesling, he did not have anything to offer. He was on his first visit to India, so I couldn't realistically expect more. Nothing can work with a blazing pepper chicken from Kerala or an Andhra dish spiked with Guntur chillies, or Lucknow's spice-heavy Galauti Kebabs.
Bridging distances: It's surprising how a wine made at a place separated from Lucknow by an eight-hour flight and a Shatabdi ride, paired seamlessly with its food
But surely, the delicately spiced Jaitooni Murgh Tikka (marinated with olives) and a Mahi Gandheri (a sole mince seekh kebab), the starters served with the Schloss Vollrads Riesling Erstes Gewachs 2006 at the Taj Palace wine dinner, pair seamlessly with the wine. Surprisingly, so did the pomegranateflavoured prawns and the traditional Murgh Awadhi Korma, with the Schloss Vollrads Riesling Kabinett 2006 (A Kabinett, interestingly, is an aperitif wine that gently balances acid with floral notes. In Germany, they wouldn't serve it with the main course, but no one really cared for such intricacies on our table). This, indeed, was a revelation, because here was a wine that came from a place separated by an eight-hour flight and a Shatabdi from Lucknow, whose food we were sampling. It confirmed once again what I'd always believed about wine-you can never be sure about how you'll be surprised the next time you have a bottle with friends.