Choosing wine that will taste good with Indian food is quite a pairing dilemma. However, hotels, restaurants, wine consultancy firms, and wine importers and distributors across India are taking multifarious initiatives to help solve the plight of this ‘marriage’ By Rituparna Chatterjee
Of all the different aspects of wine and food pairing, wine and Indian food is the most controversial. Among all cuisines, Indian food has the maximum notoriety for being hard to pair with wines, principally for two reasons. The first reason is that Indian cuisine is too varied, has layers and a myriad of complex spices and flavours to try and match with a single wine. More often, the predominant flavour of the dish is influenced by the curry or the method of cooking, i.e. dum, tandoor, fried, rather than the meat. “So the conventional rules of pairing white meat with white wine and red meat with red wine simply does not apply. One has to keep in mind the predominant flavour of the dish and the method of cooking to decide what wine might be best suited with the dish. Also, unlike in European cuisine where vegetables mostly play the role of an accompaniment, in India vegetarian ingredients very often feature as the main dish on the plate. Hence, one must re-think the traditional wine pairing rules to accommodate a vast variety of vegetarian cuisine,” advices Sonal Holland, divisional head – wine and beverages, ITC Hotels in India and wine educator, consultant, writer and broadcaster. The second reason is that chilli in the food is a huge challenge. For it burns your taste buds and impairs your tasting apparatus, making any kind of food and wine appreciation difficult. “So whilst moderately spicy dishes can be paired with refreshing, fruity and maybe even off-dry (slightly sweet) wines, very hot dishes are probably best consumed with many glasses of water,” suggests Holland.
However, we need to go past the masala and chili as being obstructions to pairing Indian food with wine avers Nikhil Agarwal, sommelier and founder, All Things Nice. “For one, we cannot generalise Indian food, and the amount of masala and spice used for a meal to be had with wine can always be controlled. Two, the world of wine is so large with so many styles that there is always a wine out there to go with even the spiciest food available,” explains Agarwal. For instance, try the deadly bhut jolokia in a dish with trockenbeerenauslese from Germany. Spice can always be cut with the fruitiness or sweetness in wine and the bold gravies can always be paired with powerful reds. Even a simple biryani can be enjoyed with a chilled rose. “It’s all about experimentation and unless we open ourselves to giving pairings a chance we’ll never know for ourselves just how good Indian food and wine is,” adds Agarwal. Reiterating Agarwal’s viewpoint, Craig W Wedge, brand director, FineWinesnMore and Fratelli Wines opines that everything goes with something. For instance, the vibrant acidity of Riesling or Argentine Torrontes, or the crispness of New Zealand Sauvignon or the juiciness of Chenin and Chardonnay sits well with all types of Indian food, as does the spiciness of cool climate Shiraz or the chewy warmth of Grenache and the velvety smoothness of Merlot.
A flair for taste
Unfortunately, in India there is lack of knowledge when it comes to pairing Indian food with wine for most Indians believe that they cannot be paired. “I think that people who don’t know too much about wine make their assumptions based on what they read in various publications. Unfortunately, our mediums are also unaware about Indian food and wine pairing so they don’t talk about it,” asserts Agarwal. Moreover, the trend of Indians consuming wine with food isn’t yet that popular in the country as compared to its western counterparts. It is not what we have been doing for several years. Even ayurvedic principles emphasise that we should not be consuming any liquid (even water) for half an hour before or after our meals. But as we are slowly opening up to the concept of food and wine pairing, we are attending wine and food pairing events and dinners. “I have often noticed at these dinners that wine enthusiasts first enjoy the wines, but once the food is at the table, they forget to take sips of wine in between,” explains Holland.
Despite the controversy surrounding this marriage between Indian food and wine, hotels, restaurants, wine consultancy firms, and wine importers and distributors across India are taking several initiatives to help demystify this controversy. At ITC Hotels, the aim is to create and curate world-class wine and food experiences for its guests by hosting regular wine pairing events where it showcases how globe’s finest Indian cuisine can be paired well with the globe’s finest wines. Its restaurant (Indian, Pan Asian and European) menus regularly feature recommended wine pairings where it encourages sampling a different glass of wine with each course/ dish. “We are also increasingly catering to the corporate world through specially curated wine evenings involving a wine workshop to learn about wines and food pairing concepts, followed by a wine and food paired dinner,” mentions Holland.
For FineWinesnMore, it is all about wine first and the ‘art of the table’ second. “When we built our tasting room, its sole aim was to talk about wine and all its faces. But we now find that our educational platform extends more and more from wine and food events to wine list and menu consulting to all manner of situations where food is considered with wine as a partner,” explains Wedge. Following a similar path, All Things Nice has been organising educative tastings for the trade or consumers to explain how Indian food and wine can be paired and has been creating experiences revolving around different kinds of Indian cuisines paired with wines. “We take it a step further as well, we pair every course with an Indian and international wine to dismiss another notion that Indian food should be paired with Indian wine only. At Celebrating India’s Finest, we even showcased Indian artisanal cheese to go along with the wines,” states Agarwal.
Innovation is the way forward for Indian food and wine pairing. Increasingly, consumers are enjoying tasting menus where the food is presented in bite size portions that lends itself well to being paired with a 50-60 ml wine pouring. Even with Indian cuisine, which was traditionally served to be shared at the table, there has been more of individually portioned and artistically presented portion sizes. “I also believe that the Tempranillo red grape variety lends itself well to Indian cuisine. It will increasingly feature as a top wine to be paired with Indian food. We are also likely to see a lot of Tempranillo being grown and produced in India over the next few years,” predicts Holland.
While Wedge opines that there will be a further opening of food and produce channels from various parts of the world. “Eclectic cuisine and organic are words and forms that I see making a big impact on the market in the not so distant future. As for wines, light bright varietals and things a little bit out of the ordinary will gain prominence. I see food and wine in general becoming more popular. I also foresee people drinking their everyday glass of wine with their everyday home cooked food.”