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Wines That Pair with Indian Food

Indian food is characterized by its generous use of spices-cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry powder, fennel, fenugreek, mace, peppercorns, and others, as well as the blend of most of these known as garam masala. But where does that leave the person who wants his or her glass of wine with dinner? What kind of wine goes with such heavily spiced dishes as fiery hot vindaloos and methi chooza, which are boneless chunks of chicken marinated in yogurt and cooked in a spice-laden sauce with a liberal use of fenugreek?

One good rule of thumb is to avoid very tannic and high-alcohol wines when eating Indian cuisine. Young, expensive Cabernet Sauvignons, Cabernet Francs, Merlots, and Bordeaux blends will tend to have heavy doses of unresolved tannins. That's because expensive reds made from these Bordeaux varieties are built to last for years in the wine cellar. And that means that the winemaker extracted lots of hard, astringent tannins from the grape berries and their seed coats into the wine. These tannins help preserve the wines while they age. Over the years in the wine cellar, the tannins link up with red color compounds in the wines called anthocyanins, producing long-chain molecules called complex anthocyanins.

These complex anthocyanins have two effects. First, when the tannins link to the color compounds, their rough astringency is greatly reduced. Older expensive red wines, then, make a much softer impression on the palate. Second, complex anthocyanins are potent flavor and fragrance compounds, which is why well-aged, expensive red wines are so much more pleasurable than when they are young. The word "expensive" is operational here, because inexpensive wines (under $20 at restaurant pricing) made from the Bordeaux varieties tend to be soft and fruity, made in a drink-me-now style that may very well pair nicely with highly-spiced Indian food. You may also find that structure-driven, rather than fruit-driven, reds from Chianti go well with heavily spiced dishes.

Australian Shiraz, inexpensive Rhone reds, Beaujolais, Grenache, modest Pinot Noirs, fruity Zinfandels, and Spanish Riojas can nicely augment meats and vegetables in the spicy sauces typical of Indian foods. But even better than reds are the white wines, especially those that are fruity yet have a strong, crisp acidity: Chablis, Chenin Blanc, Austrian Gruener Veltliner, German and Alsatian Rieslings and Gewurztraminers, Portuguese Vinho Verde, Muscadet, Vouvray, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume, Viognier, Semillion, Pinot Gris and its Italian version called Pinot Grigio, and-especially-Sauvignon Blancs that are crisp and delightfully fruity from France, California, and New Zealand.

All of these are a perfect quaff with Indian food, not only for its spices, but for its use of herbs both fresh and dried. These whites have no tannins to speak of because of what they are and how they're made. Generally they are not meant to age but are best enjoyed young, fresh, crisp, and fruity. They'll attenuate the palate that's surfeited with gobs of spices, cool the palate that's fiery from chilies, and their fruit will pair nicely with the savory flavors of Indian dishes. They can also be drunk rather than sipped, just the thing to wash down mouthfuls of rice and sauces. And most have low enough alcohol levels that drinking them in sane quantities won't result in inebriation.

If none of these wines appeal, there's always beer, and if beer doesn't appeal, the milk fat and acidic tang of lassi or any of its combinations with fruits such as mango-lassi or strawberry lassi may be the ultimate drink that goes with fiery, passionate Indian food.

By Jeff Cox
Jeff Cox writes about food, wine, and gardening from his home in Sonoma County, California.

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