I was approached by someone recently to pair and talk about wines that went well with Indian food. Pooja had (fortunately) heard good things about me and was hosting a dinner that was in part social and networking. I have paired wine with Indian food before and have even wanted to do a video because I think the panoply of colors and flavors can be spectacular, so I jumped at the opportunity. I wasn’t disappointed when I walked through the door…the smells when I walked through the door were amazing, and the food and her décor (and the gold and white dress theme for those attending) made for a truly striking evening.

indian foodThere were a few things I needed to work with. First, the group ranged from non-drinkers to collectors…check. Second, I had to keep the wines reasonably priced…no problem. And third, for my purposes, I had to define Indian food. It’s like saying Italian food or American food. Indian food can vary tremendously regionally within a couple of hundred miles as you move through India. And a typical Indian meal could present pairing challenges in that it is often widely varied what is being served. I realized in many ways it was pretty similar to a Thanksgiving meal in that a plate could include protein, starches, vegetables, aromatics, spice (!), herbs, heat, cream, sauce, sweet, sour, smoke so you need something to cut through all that, or provide clarity with the more prominent characteristics.

I also had to keep mindful that some popular wine styles definitely clash with Indian food (or anything with more spice and heat). Too much oak and alcohol not only throw off flavors, but exacerbate heat and spice, potentially taking moderately hot to uncomfortable levels for someone. Look, you can drink whatever you want with any food, and many will and do. That big California cabernet isn’t ideal but if its what you always drink with Indian food, your palate will adjust. The point of this though is to maximize the flavors and enjoyment.

I could have added more wines and such to this list, but I based my choices on what was available and to be able to keep my presentation within the time framework while allowing everyone to drive home under their own power. I may have served a sauvignon blanc or non-sparkling riesling. Would have liked to try a zweigelt or merlot or cab franc or low alcohol zin, maybe a dry brachetto or . The concept of dry ciders with Indian food was very compelling as I see them as the midpoint in some cases between wine and beer (and think they are great with a Thanksgiving meal). Interestingly, many believe beer is a great pairing with Indian food, pointing to the British developing IPA’s (India Pale Ale) to pair with the new cuisines they encountered in India. One recent theory that makes greater sense to me is that they used IPAs not to enhance the flavor(u)rs, but to mask them. I have to do more research into that but I an agree that the higher octane IPAs today might just do that.

indian food table setting

So, here are the wines I paired for Pooja’s event.

Dr. Lippold, Sparkling Riesling, Mosel, Germany. I like bubbles, I like bubbles with Indian food. I like riesling with spicier foods like Asian and Latin foods. This wine really retained the riesling characteristics but was first and foremost a sparkling wine. Many of the guests loved the combination. When the one who didn’t said it was because it was too sweet, I asked her try it with her food…she came around. I also poured a cremant from Alsace that was drier. Sparkling wines are favorites of mine with big varied meals. They have acidity which is important for food pairing. They have bubbles which help scrub the palate. They tend to be lower in alcohol which helps with a big meal and a lot of wines to still try.

Weingut & Gästehaus Berger, Grüner Veltliner, Niederosterreich, Austria. There were some vegetarians and vegans in the group (the vegans said they weren’t vegan when it came to wine though) so I wanted to put gruner on their radar. Why? Nothing pairs with things vegetal across the board than gruner veltliner. If there is green on your plate (vegetables, salads, sauces), then this is a grape you need to work into your line-up. Also a surprise hit….perhaps the biggest surprise of the night for this group.

Trimbach, Gewürztraminer, Alsace, France. Gewurztraminer is tricky because it is different in scent and taste than many wies people lean towards. It is highly aromatic, almost a combination of spicy and floral. If its too high in alcohol/too ripe, the flavors can be off-putting I find, but with the right touch (usually within cooler climate regions), its a very pretty wine. Many of the guests loved this wine off the bat even before trying it with food…when I tried it with the food, they sang beautifully together (the wine and the food, not the guests). I’d love to try a late harvest/dessert wine version with Indian desserts, so I’m sure some day soon, I will.

Heide Schrok, “Biscaya” Rose, Burgenland, Austria. I wanted a rose in the mix but one with some heft to it…this one is an Austrian rose almost approaching a red, so it comes off in some ways like a light red. An interesting blend of lagrein, teroldego, petit verdot, syrah, merlot, pinot noir and cab sauvignon. It went nicely with the bigger dishes but based on this and other post summer tastings I have done using a rose, it seems many still see it as a summer wine, but they tend to be versatile with so many food styles throughout the year.

Domaine Terres Dorees “L’Ancien”, Beaujolais, France. Reds were going to be a challenge because this group was comprised of many big red drinkers…cabs, big Italian reds, one woman said she drank mostly big Spanish reds (would have loved to talk more with her!).  This to me is a classic wine pairing with Indian food. I have used Village and Cru level Beaujolais and find many can’t get past the aromatics, but with food, there aren’t many more versatile wines, and great values for the price. It eas a positive surprise to many I talked with at the dinner.
Vina Echeverria, Carmenere Gran Reserva, Central Valley, Chile. One guest actually was familiar with carmenere prior to the event, thanks to a trip to Chile, but never considered it as a wine to pair with Indian food. This was a fun one because by now, some of the group was really digging into the components of the wines. This was the something for everyone…the big red drinkers liked it; some picked up the spice and earth, others the vegetal (green pepper especially) and smoky characteristics. When they tried it with the food, they all really liked it. Definitely more oak than any other wine this night and it stood out a bit even though not heavily oaked. Some time in the glass and I think this wine would have shown even better, but its a grape worth experimenting with.

There you have it…so have at it! Let me know if you try any of these specific wines or grape suggestions. I love to learn too.