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Wines for all reasons

When you go out for an Indian meal, or have kebabs as appetisers, don't hesitate to order a bottle of wine. Here are some suggestions.

Sourish Bhattacharyya        Print Edition: February 7, 2010

For years, western wine critics insisted that the unpronounceable Gewurtztraminer, a sweetish white wine from the Alsace region of France, was the best match for Indian food. Not long ago, a group of journalists who had been invited by the French Embassy in Delhi to match their wines with Indian cuisine declared in unison that the pairing didn't work. They were right.

How can one wine match up to a mutton yakhni from Kashmir and a meen moily from Kerala? And does anyone have an idea of what works best for an aloo parantha or a murgh makhni? It's next to impossible to have a one-size-fits-all approach to pairing wine with Indian food.

Before we get into the matchmaking process, let's first lay down the ground rules of matching food and wine. Here are five I believe in:

Rule No. 1: Everything we eat must have a matching wine. If a match works for you, it's great—forget the experts. Trust your instincts.

Rule No. 2: Two ancient rules have been buried with state honours. The first is the red with red and white with white principle. It's the sauce (or cooking style) that matters more than the meat—chicken cooked in red wine or mushroom sauce will pair best with a light red wine (say, a Pinot Noir), and so will fish in tomato sauce.

Rule No. 3: The second old rule is that a country's wine goes best only with its cuisine. I'm sure it must have been framed by the French wine industry to stave off competition.

Rule No. 4: Drinking wine is all about associations. A match that may sizzle one evening (when you are with your significant other), may just bomb when you're with your boss or mother-in-law.

Rule No. 5: When you match wine with food, remember that one should not dominate the other. The best match is one where the food enhances the taste of the wine.

Inspired by these rules, I have made some of my own after many a spirited meal of kebabs and curries.

Pairing Principle No. 1: Indian dishes with strong spices—from galouti kebabs to pepper chicken— just don't pair with any wine (beer or lassi were invented for them).

Pairing Principle No. 2: Generally, white wines are better matches for Indian dishes. I have had a Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand, with egg bhurji and aloo parantha; a dry Riesling from Germany with murgh malai tikka and the Parsi speciality, pathrani machchi; and the Italian white called Gavi (the name comes from the place where the wine extracted from Cortese grapes is made) with a lightly spiced daab chingri, a Bengali preparation.

Pairing Principle No. 3: Some reds do travel well with what we eat. I have had a robust Spanish red wine —the name is Tempranillo—with barra kebabs. I've also had a South African Pinotage—rare to get and a difficult food wine as well—with seekh kebabs. But the safest is Pinot Noir—I've had it with dal makhni and butter chicken.

Pairing Principle No. 4: Never ask for an expensive red wine—a château wine from Bordeaux or an Italian cult wine, a Barolo or Barbaresco, for instance—with Indian food. These wines are too complex to enhance the dining experience with Indian dishes.

Pairing Principle No. 5: A decently cooled Sauvignon Blanc is one wine that can pair well with most lightly spiced Indian preparations. When in doubt, just order one.

Don't believe anyone who says there's no wine match for Indian preparations. Have an open mind and your palate will lead you to unforgettable pairings.

— Sourish Bhattacharyya is Executive Editor, Mail Today

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