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Ask a Somm: What Kind of Wine Pairs With Indian Food?

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

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Indian cuisine, with all its diversity, doesn’t obviously translate to a haute tasting menu format. Rather, in a restaurant setting, the multitude of rustic stews and soups and breads seem best suited for family-style service. But at New York’s new Indian Accent, the second outlet of the New Delhi eatery under the same name, chef Manish Mehrotra take a fine dining approach, presenting a modern interpretation of classic Indian flavors. On the drinks side, in addition to a slew of specialty cocktails, beverage director Daniel Beedle has organized a worldwide list of food-friendly wines. Below, he offers suggestions on the best bottles to drink while eating Indian cuisine.

Q: What kind of wine pairs with Indian cuisine?

Beedle: India is one of the oldest civilizations on earth and is divided into 29 different states, all with varying sets of ingredients and spice blends. What is somewhat unique to the cuisine is that it has developed almost completely isolated from alcohol. Spice blends that contain large amounts of tannin or capsicum create a different type of framework that allow a somewhat narrower ability for wine pairings. Indian cuisine compensates for the acid and fruit found in wine with a dizzying array of chutneys and pickles that balance out the food in a similar fashion. Off-dry German rieslings, like Forstmeister Geltz Zilliken Rausch Kabinett ($28), have long since been a go-to for pairing with Indian cuisine, as this wine’s low percentage of alcohol doesn't exacerbate the heat from chili, and its sweetness helps soften the tannins in some spice blends.

Indian cuisine has developed almost completely isolated from alcohol.

Indian dishes with cream and yogurt can be a bit of a challenge. If the wine has too much acid, it will seem sharp and thin. The dairy used isn’t usually fortified with cheese like in some other cuisines, and tends to take away a lot of flavor from the wine itself. For these types of dishes, sugar and concentration are two aspects that I consider. I tried out a few dishes with Edi Kante’s Malvasia ($35) from Italy’s Carso district (southeastern Friuli) one day, and saw that the grape (with a little skin contact) has a lot to offer in this scenario. Even when made into a dessert wine (as they would in Spain’s Canary Islands), it has a way of reacting to the heavily cooked and spiced vegetables, acting as somewhat of a counterweight to the cooking technique.

The idea behind a lot of Indian meals is not a single plate, but a collection of many dishes. You can't think of pairing in the same terms as you would if you were going to match a cabernet sauvignon with a steak. Look at what will go well with everything. Since there is generally a large portion of dried spice blends used in the food, pair a wine with fresh and lively fruit notes to help balance it out.

Stick with wines that showcase fresh fruit and good acid.

However, there are some specific dishes that I've found work really well. Dishes like porkbelly vindaloo from Goa can go beautifully with savorier and oxidative wines like The Rare Wine Company's Charleston Sercial Madeira ($50). Stronger dishes like lamb with red lentils, can go well with lighter, fruitier reds like Edmunds St. John "Rocks and Gravel" ($28) mourvèdre and grenache blend from Sonoma. Another interesting pairing I've found is with the classic fish molee (coconut curry sauce) that goes quite nicely with a rich buttery, high-acid chardonnay. Mount Eden Estate Chardonnay ($140) from California’s Santa Cruz Mountains has been my current go-to for this. Chicken tikki masala? Go for a rich Champagne that has a touch of residual sugar.

If you had to come up with a general rule of thumb for a style of wine that pairs well with Indian cuisine, I'd say stick with wines that showcase fresh fruit and good acid. Gamay, pinot noir, grüner veltliner, gelber muskateller, chenin blanc, riesling, fuller-style sparkling wines, and even certain types of sherry and orange wine can also be successful. Try to stay away from overly tannic wines like Bordeaux or Barolo, but if you’re going to go there, get something with age.

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Indian Accent

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