Taking the work out of pairing a wide range of wines with indian food is no easy task when everyone, especially the experts, recommends gewürztraminers and rieslings. If there is ever a cuisine that lags in pairing its delectable dishes with wine, its Indian. Perhaps that’s why the wine lists at so many indian restaurants are so limited, and I’m often disappointed but always find a way to make it work, even with inexpensive, lacking complexity, sometimes flavorless wines. I hear way too often that indian food and wine just don’t work.
Most people assume Indian food and beer is the way to go – while that may be true for some, I personally think it’s that way only because we’re just not aware of all wine has to offer – not only that but we’re drinking the wrong types with our foods and limited types at that. (If you had to pick a beer though to work with south asian food, I’d suggest my friend’s brew, 1947 – it definitely caught my attention and I’m not a huge beer fan but I liked this one!).
Back to wine, can’t we venture away from the standard sweeter varieties? We know our food is spicy but it’s also very rich in flavors, all kinds of unique, intense, aromatic, rich flavors from the north, south, east and west. So why do we generalize all of that to pair with an off-dry riesling (because dry just won’t be candied enough to drink with pungent dishes), when we may not even like sweeter tasting wines? Yes, we need balance and yes, we need to off-set the spice but we also need to enhance the food, the wine, and the atmosphere – how do we accomplish that if we limit ourselves? But I digress…
So, what should we pair with Indian food? I hate rules especially when it comes to wine, why make it stuffy and stiff for own selves! But if there’s one rule to follow, it’s this one: Drink what you like. Even if the person next to you disagrees, even if your snobby wine friend says “ugh I’d never drink a cabernet with my coconut curry!” (no, you won’t hear this from me). I understand that taste is unique for everyone. Here’s the basis for this rule, if you like the wine you are drinking with your food, then the pairing is working. How much simpler can it get? Now this does not mean, we can’t use some of the more common preferences and offer them up as guidance or recommendations. I’m all too familiar with how similar and yet strikingly different people’s tastes can be. For instance, it’s no secret that women prefer lighter bodied red wines with less complex blends and men prefer full-bodied, oaky, toasty wines. Wouldn’t that mean women may like a different glass of wine than men with the very same meal? Yes! That’s why the order by the glass option exists, right? But what if you had to order, or bring or serve a bottle at home? I’m not just talking about indian food at restaurants, I’m talking about indian food at home too which is often quite different, sometimes more complicated and sometimes simpler! And I’m not suggesting that if you have four wine drinking adults at home with four different wine preferences, you open 4 bottles! (Personally, I don’t mind this but I do realize that it is not practical for most people and just not very elegant at times). But I digress again…
Indian food is complicated at times. Well, so is wine, isn’t it? Indian food is made with umpteen spices, herbs, and ingredients – hmm, so is wine! Aren’t we all familiar with the one basic rule of wine pairing – Pair like tastes with like. This means that opposites don’t attract and like flavors enhance each other. There I go again with the rules I so hate, okay so I’ve selectively thrown all the rules out the window but the reality is, I know how absolutely amazing indian food tastes with wine! I think the flavors are more alive and more prominent when rightly paired – remember, this means that if you don’t like the wine (or dish), the pairing is not working. You may love the very same wine on its own, with different company, or with italian food – it’s just not working with whatever you are eating.
Here are my suggestions for some reasonably priced wines that work oh so well with different types of Indian cuisine. I’ve listed just a few of the hundreds of commonly available wines that pair oh so well with south asian recipes. I tried to include wine types that you may not be inclined to test with indian food and stayed away from the standard whites like the german gewürztraminer and rieslings and reds like syrah/shiraz:
White (Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Prosecco, Chardonnay, Champagne) :
King Estate Pinot Gris from Oregon ($15) – pairs well with almost anything with any kind of indian flavor but works exceptionally well with fish, crab and heavy seafood dishes (if there is such a thing). Brancott Sauvignon Blanc’s ($14) fresh fruit and zesty, spicy flavors complement levels of heat in almost any seafood or vegetarian dish cooked indian style. A super chilled Prosecco such as Bellussi ($12) is a wonderful pairing with the many indian appetizers usually served (hint hint, if you are having a dinner party, I don’t think you will find a better deal that actually signals luxury without breaking the bank. But If you feel like splurging, go with Louis Jadot Puligny-Montrachet ($60) - its melon and exotic fruit flavors make up for its dryness to balance a spicy meal. And when in doubt, serve good champagne. I personally am a big fan of the Heidsieck, Pommery, Phillippe Gonet and the Perrier Jouet Grand Bruts.
Rose (Sancerre, Sparkling, Champagne) :
Once upon a time, I was guilty of assuming a pink wine meant sweetness and overly bearing fruit on my palette, which meant I needed to stay away. I admit that was a long time ago and I have since come to appreciate and even look forward to tasting a beautiful pink tint in a wine glass. Lucky for us, many of these pair very well with indian food and work well with almost all types of indian poultry, fish and red meat dishes – including light and heavy sauces. My new favorite is a pink Sancerre, Domaine Sautereau - Côtes de Reigny ($24) – what an elegant match to any exotic chilli dish you may be pairing this with. I had this the other night with masala salmon and it was heavenly how refreshing the flavors worked well from both the spices in my dish and the soft tannins in this smoky wine. If you are not feeling so elegant and want a casual equivalent, I’d suggest a pink sparkling like a Californian Mumm Napa Brut Rose ($18) – this is another delicate wine that helps enhance indian cuisine especially tandoori flavored dishes. Of course, when in doubt – reach for a good pink champagne, and while Veuve Clicquot works, try something different especially if you are willing to splurge anyway. I love the Nicolas Feuillate Rose ($42) and the Pommery Brut Rose ($54) – these just enhance, well any meal or setting. You just can’t go wrong.
Red (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, Bordeaux, Sangiovese) :
This one’s easy. I agree with most wine enthusiasts that Pinot Noirs are the way to go with indian cuisine but then again I also always say, Pinot Noirs can pretty much be had with any food, including sushi! Even still, it’s a great casual night when you can get an inexpensive bottle of wine such as the Mirrassou Pinot Noir ($8) to pair with your homemade indian food, even vegetarian and dhal dishes. If you want to lift up your spirits a little more or have company over (and if you can find this wine) then definitely try the OCD Pinot Noir from New Zealand ($15), its bright ruby red color and cherry flavors will balance almost any meal and any mood. The Ghost Pines Merlot ($15) is another wine that may accomplish the same and is probably more readily available. Napa Cabernets such as Francis Ford Coppola ($15) can work really well with indian meat dishes, including lamb chops and steak. I can list twenty more like these but again, this is where I will re-plug my first rule: Drink what you like. An amazing Bordeaux blend that balances indian flavors is the Newton Claret ($20) and if you are a fan of Coppola then they make a very nice Claret ($15) also that works just as well, especially with indian bbq dishes. Some may think this one is a stretch but I know it works because I tried it (with company) but even a Sangiovese such as Loacker’s Brillando ($15) can pair nicely with spicy and full dishes, especially when accompanied by naan or bread. The fact that’s it’s a biodynamic wine, made it an interesting piece for conversation as well. One caveat though, keep the yogurt/curd based curries and sauces away from the reds (no, not a rule but a very valid suggestion that may save your meal!).
Bottom line: Not ALL wines work with all foods, some will intensify and heighten certain flavors and then some will take away the essence of your dish. It is truly up to you to be the judge of what pairs well with your surroundings and food is one of those components. You create your own pairings, just like you create your own dishes, restaurant choices, moods, company and atmosphere – wine is another means to adorn what’s already on and around your table!