Next weekend, the first India Grape Harvest Wine Festival will take place in Nashik, causing wine enthusiasts to sip, swirl and stomp as if there were no tomorrow. Tomorrow is the last day of the All Things Nice Wine Week in Mumbai. Twenty-eight participating restaurants are offering wine at a 30% discount with meals, mostly of the Mediterranean kind, which begs the question: Why not Indian food? And here we go.
Pairing Indian food with wine is iffy and requires imagination. Western cuisine is about extracting flavour from existing ingredients. Indian, and for that matter, most Asian cuisines mask the inherent flavour of the ingredients by adding herbs and spices. The fear is that these spices will overpower the wines. Most of the classic pairings—champagne with caviar; roast lamb with Bordeaux; chèvre with Sancerre; dark chocolate with Cabernet Sauvignon (okay, that last one isn’t classic)—use little or no spices. Hence the stereotype: “Indian food and wine? No way. Swig a beer, instead.”
It is up to Indians to show the wine world how to pair their wines with our food. To put this egregious issue to rest on a bed of lettuce (or scallops, have your pick), here is an authoritative guide of global wines that pair well with Indian dishes—compiled by interviewing numerous sommeliers and wine experts. To ensure utmost objectivity, I have restricted myself only to those wines and cuisines that I like.
German Rieslings, Alsatian Gewurztraminers and rosé wines are the usual suggestions when Western wine writers talk about Indian food. Their crisp acidity cuts through our spices and the touch of sweetness acts as a foil to the heat in our cuisine. Under that broad umbrella, here are some more specifics.
Pinot Gris: A classic pairing is asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Using the same logic, Pinot Gris can be paired with light vegetables in creamy sauces such as malai kofta, navratan korma and even palak paneer. Domaine Zind-Humbrecht is a great producer, making biodynamic wines.
Grüner Veltliner: An Austrian wine with a hint of bitterness to it, this can pair well with methi (fenugeek)parathas, Indian greens and tender karela (bitter gourd), all of which also veer towards bitter (using the logic of dessert wines—desserts paired with sweet wines). Or you could do the opposite and pair this wine with Gujarati cuisine (which has a touch of sweetness) or yeasty Kerala appams with their mutton stew.
Muscat: Many grape varieties originated in Ukraine and the Muscat wines of Ukraine and Slovenia have a floral sweetness that makes them a good complement to light south Indian salads such as Karnataka’s famous kosambaris.
Riesling from the Mosel region of Germany: Great pairing for safed maas and other heavy meat dishes with a touch of cream. JJ Prüm and Fritz Haag are good producer choices.
Sancerre: This typically goes well with chèvre or goat cheese. Using the logic of salty cheese with this Loire Valley wine, consider Kashmiri goshtaba or the more subtle haleems. If all else fails, try the ubiquitous salted peanuts with a Sancerre. Or even popcorn. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Italian and Spanish sparkling wines such as Lambrusco, Franciacorta and Cava: They do well with many of our coconut-based coastal dishes. Fish moily (with a touch less of curry leaves and ginger), Konkan fish dishes, all would be beautifully complemented by these bright bubbly wines.
Malbecs: Argentina’s Malbecs are often paired with grilled meats. They would go well with our kebabs, particularly if the chef goes easy on the marinade.
Oaked Chardonnay such as the Montes Alpha from Chile: These would work well with our “barbecued” meats or smoked flavours such as the dungar cooking of Rajasthan.
Italian wines are natural accompaniments to pastas, pizzas, and dare I say, Punjabi food—which shares the tomato, garlic and girth of some Italian cuisines.
Pulaos are less spicy than biryani. When served with dal makhni or meat, they could be similar to the Italian risotto. Using that logic, some of the well-rounded Italian reds with high alcohol levels (over 14%) would stand up to the aromatic pulaos—Chianti, Valpolicella, Amarone. Similarly some Côtes du Rhône blended wines from Crozes Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie will work as well.
Nero d’Avola: A Sicilian red, its lush, rounded flavours will complement bharthas and tikkas. As for chicken tikka masala and the like, lighter wines from the Piedmont, such as Dolcetto and Barbera, or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo would work better than the rugged Barolos and Barbarescos of that region. But who knows? Maybe the heavy northern Italian reds can stand up to rich Punjabi food.
Pinot Noirs: These do well with many of our medium-bodied dishes. Parsi dishes come to mind. They are rich but not chilli-hot. New world Pinot Noirs do better with our foods than the ones from the Loire Valley. New Zealand Pinot Noirs—from Marlborough—or the ones from Willamette Valley, Oregon, have the oomph to stand up to Indian food.
Chilean Sauvignon Blancs: Perfect with light vegetarian dishes, which are not creamy or ultra-hot. The grassy, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc or the more aromatic Viognier will complement this vegetarian cuisine.
Torres wines: Widely available in India, these go well with fiery Hyderabadi or Chettinad cuisines. Their Viña Esmeralda with its dash of sweet fruitiness is a spectacular combination. Their Gran Sangre de Toro isn’t bad either. Unoaked chardonnays such as Chablis or lighter semillon wines work with spicy Chettinad chicken dishes.
Albariño: This wine from Spain has the dry sweetness and medium acidity that will do well with spicy biryanis. Dry rosé wines also work well with biryanis. Since rosé doesn’t travel well and needs to be drunk young, this is one wine you must buy local. Indian rosé wines from Sula or Big Banyan can be chilled and served with biryanis.
Prosecco, Pinot Grigio, Moscato d’Asti and the citrusy, floral notes of Friuli wines pair well with the spicy fish flavours of Bengali food. What else? Remember that song from Devdas, Chalak Chalak? What wine do the drunk dancers sing about? “Yeh Madeira, yeh Madeira,” they say. Mustard oil with Madeira? Why ever not?
As for Bordeaux wines, I drink them anytime, paired with cheese from the region.
Shoba Narayan is working her way through Indian dishes paired with Indian wines.