Cool wines can take the heat from spicy In­dian food

Low tan­nins and high acid­ity are ideal match

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - Break­ing news at calgaryher­ JOHN MAR­I­ANI

Sa­muel John­son said, “Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who as­pires to be a hero must drink brandy.”

Un­for­tu­nately, he ne­glected to say which one goes best with In­dian food. Of course, back in the 18th cen­tury, Lon­don had no curry houses of the kind where in the 1960s I could pay one pound for a full meal, with a bot­tle of King­fisher beer for 50 pence.

Years later, while vis­it­ing In­dia, I never met any­one who rec­om­mended any­thing but beer or the yo­gurt drink lassi to go with the spicy, of­ten in­cen­di­ary food of New Delhi, Mum­bai, and Kolkata.

There were no wine lists in the restau­rants, and, al­though In­dia has made wine for at least two mil­len­ni­ums, un­til re­cently, few In­di­ans en­joyed it with their meals. A pro­hi­bi­tion against wine in the 1950s hurt the in­dus­try, which is only now re­cov­er­ing.

This my­opia is now chang­ing among the more af­flu­ent gen­er­a­tion in In­dia’s big cities, where wine and al­co­hol are be­com­ing very much a part of din­ing out.

“Even two years ago, im­ported wines were as­tro­nom­i­cally priced in In­dia,” says Ro­hini Dey, owner of two Ver­mil­ion restau­rants, in Chicago and New York. “To­day Mum­bai is more pro­gres­sive than other places, and they now have a pop cul­ture, so the young peo­ple with money want to try Old World and Cal­i­for­nia wines.”

At New York’s Ver­mil­ion, the wine list is global and pricey: a hum­drum 2010 Vie Vite Rose that sells in wine store for $15 costs a whop­ping $80 here, and a 2010 Ni­eto Mal­bec from Ar­gentina, $10 at re­tail, is $48 on the list.

“My ad­vice is to stay away from high al­co­hol wines that will ac­cen­tu­ate the burn of the food,” Dey says. “Syrupy wines do a dis­ser­vice to our food. The best choices are wines with low tan­nins and high acid­ity.”

I agree with Dey. The wines I found went best with highly spiced dishes, like duck vin­daloo with pome­gran­ate mo­lasses and pindi but­ter chicken with a creamy tomato sauce, were pleas­ant whites like Chenin Blanc and a white Rioja whose min­er­als and acid­ity did noth­ing to tamp down the fire but gave a good fruity edge to the food.

I also spoke with Si­mon Stil­well, one of the rare som­me­liers at an In­dian res­tau­rant in the U.S., in this case the ex­cel­lent new Rasika West End in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. He likes min­er­al­rich white Bur­gundies with rich, creamy dishes like the cheese­based pa­neer makhani.

As for food cooked in the fierce tan­door oven, Stil­well says, “The high tem­per­a­ture and slight char ef­fect on the food are sim­i­lar to the re­sults from grilling, like dishes from coastal Spain where a lot of fish is grilled, or Ar­gentina, where they grill so much meat. So, the wines from those coun­tries are well worth in­ves­ti­gat­ing.” Rasika West End car­ries no In­dian wines on its list (“They are dif­fi­cult to source in DC,” says Stil­well), but he does have some high-end Bordeaux, Bur­gundy and Cal­i­for­nia cult wines that I thought would be ill-ad­vised choices with In­dian food be­cause it would oblit­er­ate the sub­tleties of the wines.

“Not at all!” Stil­well says, “It’s like ask­ing if drink­ing a great Chi­anti, bar­lolo, or brunello with pizza or pasta is a bad idea. I think peo­ple should eat and drink what makes them most happy — if that is high­end French wines or cult Cali’s, then please en­joy!” Stil­well also rec­om­mends Old World dessert wines with In­dian desserts, which can be in­tensely sweet.

“Dessert changes things a lit­tle be­cause of­ten the cold tem­per­a­ture of desserts sub­dues their aro­mas,” he says. “An in­tensely sweet Hun­gar­ian Tokaji, with its aro­mas of saf­fron, apri­cots and honey are great for dishes like our mango and saf­fron kulfi or rice pud­ding. Our ras malai is made into Choco­late Ras Malai with lay­ers of choco­late mousse, ganache, and choco­late cake work great with tawny ports or even sweet mal­becs from Ca­hors, France.”

I’m pretty sure I won’t be serv­ing my First Growth Bordeaux with In­dian food — I’ll save them for the sim­plest of flavours, like un­adorned steak and lamb — but good, in­ex­pen­sive white wines from Spain, Provence, and South Amer­ica make a lot of sense, not least be­cause they are thirstquen­ch­ing. And Stil­well is ab­so­lutely right about those dessert wines.

Then again, if a beer has a sure de­gree of creami­ness and sweet­ness to it, I think it makes a great match for In­dian desserts.

Un­til In­dian wines get bet­ter and more avail­able, the myr­iad global wine op­tions make a lot of good sense with the kind of food once en­joyed only by Mughal roy­alty.

Pho­tos: Postmedia News/files

Hun­gar­ian Tokaji is great for desserts like mango and saf­fron kulfi or rice pud­ding.

A hum­drum 2010 Vie Vite Rose costs a whop­ping $80 at New York’s Ver­mil­ion.

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