This question has vexed me for almost two decades, ever since I graduated from drinking lager with Indian food as an undergraduate in England. Of all the different aspects of wine and food matching, wine and Indian food is the trickiest. What type of wine works best, and indeed whether you should drink wine at all is the subject of endless conversations.
Today, most fans of Indian food have come round to the idea that wine can be an equally enjoyable accompaniment especially in London which now has some of the most sophisticated Indian restaurants in the world.
Much of the credit for this is due to pioneering sommelier Laurent Chaniac who, together with chef Vivek Singh, has incorporated a gastronomic menu paired with serious wines into the regular menu at London’s fashionable Cinnamon Club – the first Indian restaurant to take wine this seriously.
So I came up with my own conclusions to what makes the most sense specifically to go with spicy Indian food.
While the age-old adage always works “semi-sparkling and off-dry, mimicking the appeal of a lager”, let’s be honest, most of us wouldn’t dream of drinking any of these wines for pleasure. At my home, on special occasions we might start with a glass of champagne or a sparkling wine-based cocktail like a Mimosa or a Bellini. For the the main meal, one word of caution: most pairings won’t work in a conventionally structured Indian meal where several dishes are served at once. Instead we serve them as courses, Western style. Here’s why. Some spices are more powerful than others. Coriander seeds, for example, don’t tend to affect a wine choice unduly while dried chilli (especially smoked), cloves and saffron, even if used in quite modest amounts, do.
Herbaceous Sauvignon Blancs with more herbal flavours do well if you have a selection of the dishes. The stand-out varietal wine for me is a Pinot Gris, it also provides the touch of sweetness I think you need to balance the spiciness of Indian food.
I have always struggled with the reds. The sweet fruit of a Pinot Noir which I can enjoy on its own is stripped out by the food while the heat of the dishes accentuates the alcohol and tannins of other red wines. I’ve drunk red wines successfully with spicy food before but they’ve been less tannic and lighter wines. A full-bodied red wine with powerful tannins is quite frankly a complete disaster if paired with an aromatic and spicy Indian dish. Serious reds which are either too tannic when they’re young or too fragile to cope when they’re more mature and mellow are usually completely deconstructed by spicy Indian food.
So the conundrum is that the kinds of wines that work best with Indian food (by and large off-dry, fruity or fizzy) are not necessarily the ones wine-lovers most want to drink. The light sweetness of an off–dry Riesling lends it charm for tackling high spice foods. If you want to drink a particular style of wine you’re better to adjust your meal so that certain dishes and tastes predominate or serve it Western style, with one or two dishes at a time.
If you serve Indian food the traditional way your best bet in my view would be an Alsace Pinot Gris (a good choice when you eat out) a fruity rosé (good for converting beer-drinking friends to the virtues of drinking wine with spicy food), champagne – or, for a less indulgent occasion, Cava or light, off–dry Proseccos.In all cases, balanced acidity and modest alcohol levels are crucial. Among whites, sparkling wine often complements spicy food for the same reason that beer does – the bubbles scrub and refresh the palate; the effervescence of sparkling wine steadily matches the multi-layered flavours present in most Indian dishes.
Of course, if the food is so spicy that you break out in a sweat and fan your mouth after each bite, then, yes, forget the wine and open a beer. Or maybe even a carton of milk!