The first time I drank wine with Indian food was an absolute accident. It was years ago in an Indian buffet-style BYOB joint with two friends. They ran across the street to a corner store; one to get beer, the other to get wine for our dinner. When one returned with the wrong parcel and pulled out a bottle of South African Chenin Blanc, I felt sure we were about to ruin something—either the wine or the food. We filled our plates with overcooked curry resembling a puddle of baby food and splashed Chenin Blanc into greasy water glasses.
Though the curries were a gummy mess, the bright acids of the Chenin Blanc started to resurrect and divide the masala. I could suddenly taste coriander, cumin, and the snap of ginger. Another sip cleared my palate. I moved onto Bhaingan Bharta, an eggplant dish of Pakistan, Punjab, and Bengal. The mustard seeds, red chilies, and cilantro actually rose through the muddy sauce and breathed a bit of life into the dish.
Just imagine what a decent wine could do for properly made fresh South Indian cuisine?
After a decade as DOSA’s Wine Director, I have determined that this is a no-brainer. Wine has vital acids and flavors that coax the elements of a dish from the obscurity of a complex recipe. A typical Indian masala (spice mix) may contain anywhere from 15-25 ingredients, so it is imperative to pair it with the right wine to showcase its attributes.
Choosing the Right Wine for the Right Dish
When we hear about the marriage of wine and food, we often think, “what does this wine go with?” This suggests that as long as the food and drink aren’t duking it out, then we did well. But what I am looking for is true simpatico. There should be flavors and aromas in both the food and the wine that wouldn’t be present if it weren’t for the other. Despite my familiarity with DOSA’s dishes, I have discovered hidden spices that only showed when I had the right sip of wine.
So why are we afraid that bold cuisines like Southern Indian will kill our precious wines? People still say, “Well, I guess a spicy Gewurztraminer or sweet Riesling would work”—which is true but discounts such a myriad of grapes, regions, and styles that I wonder how much progress has actually been made in understanding wine and food.
There are challenges to finding the right wine for the right dish, but let’s assume the best way is to deconstruct things a bit. First, there’s the simple attributes of a wine: white, red, rosé (or, orange—that’s another conversation!) and the alcohol content—a 15.1 % Zinfandel is bound to ignite any palate against a fiery red chile-driven Vindaloo.
Next, let’s talk oak. A little kiss of those tannins and some added spice might complement a wine, but fresh new oak in a young wine will certainly create a bitter in-palate collision. So, seek out wines in which a judicious use of oak barrels have buoyed the wines but not defined them. We love a presence of fruit in the wines we choose at DOSA and select winemakers who enjoy early harvesting, to trap those acids in the good juice. Vital acids and fruit tannins can stand in place of needed oak.
At DOSA, our lists deny no region on the planet. Sure, we feature the giants of European winemaking: France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Austria, but we also love lesser-known countries and regions that often were the teachers of today’s stalwarts. Consider Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and, of course, the Motherland of winemaking, the Republic of Georgia.
The Complexity of Indian Cuisine
South India’s diversity of geography and climate has allowed for an incredible variety of flavors, textures, and colors in their food. Spices have been flung by centuries of war and colonization across the globe. Where they have landed seems random, but, in fact, nations in Eastern Europe seemed to grab a dominant spice and then wines in those districts were cultivated in styles to complement these flavors. That is why fenugreek, coriander, and garlic based dishes in Georgia work so well with their off-dry Saperavi red wines. This is also why Georgian wines dance so well with South Indian cuisine that also enlists these spices.
Studies have even suggested that Indian cuisine is unique among world foods in that its richness of ingredients that have been regionally developed over millennia actually have a scientific basis of agreement. Bringing together the correct balance of many ingredients creates exquisite tastes in a such a way that their flavor molecules don’t overlap. This means that a dish of 25 spices don’t mean a muddling of flavors but rather a high rise of tastebud pleasure. In fact, the use of binary spices—such as cumin and coriander, ginger and garlic, or star anise and black pepper—also has healing attributes which are the basis of ayurvedism, the edict that food is medicine.
What does this all have to do with pairing wine? Well, there are equal complexities in good wines, so let’s find a way to make them meet on the table under the best circumstances.
The Marriage of South Indian Cuisine and Wine
At DOSA, our aim is to create an experience for our visitors. Spend some time with the menu, then ask your server what wine is going to unlock the richness of your particular dish selection. Fish Moilee curries, for example, are rich in native coconut, turmeric, coriander, and fresh-caught fish. This dish pairs perfectly with our organic Chenins from Loire Valley in France, Santa Barbara in California, or Nashik in India’s Maharashtra.
Other dishes, such as a dark, garam-masala
based Lamb Pepper Fry from Tamil Nadu (the
southernmost Indian state, where many of our cooks originate from), call for a sturdy red. The earthy, smoky curry is made of toasted spices and is almost black in color. Try a Rhone-based Syrah or Argentinean Malbec from high in the Salta region where grapes are organically dry-farmed, alcohol is low, and wines are aged properly before release.
Alternatively, when I sit down with a Channa Masala with Bhatura (a fried puffy wheat bread) and a glass of Nebbiolo, those black fruits and herbs pop forth and the gentle smokiness and tangy tomato-coconut aspects of the curry mingle in ways that wouldn’t be possible if they weren’t both together.
There are simply too many dishes in India and too many wines in the world to make a broad-sweeping statement. There are guidelines, but ultimately, it is a matter of experiment. We have to go dish by dish and spice blend by spice blend. Sometimes our preconceived notions about wine pairing with Indian food are wrong, and we have to accept that a dry rosé really rocks with Dahi Vada—a cool dish of a crushed vada (lentil fritter) with strained yogurt, piped tamarind, and mint chutneys atop.
Tasting wine frequently and getting close to our chefs and their daily creations is the silver bullet here. Visit DOSA and ask us some questions, or stop by our Wines and Wishes event on February 4th to really dive deeply into the world of wine. All you have to do is raise your fork—or fingers, as it is done in India.