The Taste with Vir: Rules for great wine and food pairings
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi tells us about the problems with the traditional approach to wine pairing, and what is the right way to pair food with wine.Updated: Sep 26, 2019 13:58 IST
I was at a wine tasting a month ago with Kapil Sekhri, who makes the only Indian wine I drink. Kapil is one of the owners of Fratelli, (it is owned by three sets of brothers - hence the name, which means brothers in Italian) and he had been asked by Anil Chadda, the big boss of operations at ITC Hotels, to create a range of house wines for the chain.
Years ago, when Anil ran Delhi’s Maurya Hotel, he had got Kapil to create wines for Bukhara and Dum Pukht. Now he wanted wines they could sell across the chain. As there is no shortage of wines that you can serve with Western food, Anil’s real concern was with finding wines that would work with Indian food.
Kapil came up with many new blends, some of which were tweaks to existing top-tier Fratelli wines. The normal Fratelli sparkler is zero dosage. (This is a complicated technical term but what it means, in essence, is that they don’t add any sugar - unlike most champagnes.) But to create an Indian food-friendly sparkler, he had experimented with various dosages to make the wines slightly sweeter.
I don’t know which wines Anil finally chose but I enjoyed the experience because Anil had got the chefs at the Sheraton New Delhi (which, despite its name, is an ITC hotel and has superlative Delhi food) to make a range of dishes to pair the wines with. So we tried each wine with at least four or five different dishes to see which combination worked.
The evening reminded me of the struggles we have all had while trying to pair wine and food over the years. When I first started writing about wine, the consensus was that you could only drink cheap sweet wine with Indian food. Then, when people said that this was patronising and offensive, wine writers suggested Gewurztraminer, a more expensive wine, as an all-purpose accompaniment to Asian food.
In many ways, I think the cheap, sweetish wine recommendations may have made more sense than Gewurtz , a fragrant wine whose aromas are destroyed by the scent of Indian spices. And ditto for all the other wine writer recommendations: Rose with curry, for instance.
As all of these recommendations came from Brit wine writers who wanted to suggest an alternative to lager as an accompaniment to curry, I always thought that the condescension was either subliminal or conscious. Basically, they were saying: drink Blue Nun or Mateus with Indian food. Don’t waste anything good on the cuisine.
As time has gone on, I have become less and less keen anyway on the numerous articles that tell us what wine to drink with each food.
While wine writers have the luxury of pairing wine with individual dishes, that is not how it works for most people. Typically, two people go to a restaurant. Each orders a starter and a main course. So you have four different dishes. What wine are you going to order? A white with the prawn starter? Sauternes with the foie gras ? A strong red with the steak?
The reality is that most of us will only order one bottle for the table. And we are not going to be able to match that wine with every course.
There is a way out and I sometimes take it. You tell the sommelier (abroad – not in India, unless you are a deranged gambler) to choose four glasses of wine, one for each of the dishes. This works with tasting menus where the sommelier and the chef have sat down and planned the wine pairings. But otherwise most restaurants only offer a handful of not very good wines by the glass. So, if you take this route, you may well end up with second-rate wines.
There are other problems with the traditional approach to wine pairing. It is all very well to say “red with meat and white with fish”, but rarely is the fish served on its own. There is usually a sauce. So it is with the meat. So do you pair the wine with the sauce or with the main ingredient? A light red wine with the meat is destroyed if it has, say, a mustard dressing. English people like claret with roast beef. But does it really stand up to the horse-radish that the beef is eaten with?
My solution has been to divide my meals into two categories. There are wine-based meals where I find a good wine (at a bargain price, in my case) on the list and base my meal around that. Or if the food is the point of the restaurant, I don’t waste money on very good wine but order something quite basic and simple.
There are other factors. I am not convinced by the rules that old style sommeliers have been taught. For instance, I think it is crazy to drink champagne with foie gras. I often prefer a sweet wine (but again it depends on what the foie gras is served with) while the Bordelais often drink good red wine with it. In Italy they will tell you to drink Nebbiolo-based wines with white truffle (both come from the same region) but I think a white wine works better. You will be encouraged to order a Pinot Noir-based wine with Peking Duck because duck and red burgundy are a classic combination. But Peking Duck is completely different in flavour and goes best with white burgundy (unless you put too much hoisin sauce).
Nor are Western pairings always mindful of Eastern flavours. I find many umami-filled dishes work with old Meursault – it is terrific with soya flavours or shitake mushrooms. Good German wines with their balance of sweetness and acid are terrific with sashimi but it’s not a combination I have heard too many people suggest.
My broad conclusion is that there are no hard and fast rules for pairing food and wine. It is largely a matter of individual taste and it is also largely influenced by the kinds of wines you like.
When it comes to Indian food, there is only one rule: chilli is the enemy of wine. So if you are planning to blow the roof of your mouth off with an Andhra meal, don’t drink wine with it.
After that, it gets more specific. If you don’t want to spend too much money, then a mid-priced Sauvignon Blanc usually works with most Asian food (except red meat). I order the Henri Bourgeois Sancerre, a semi-industrial wine made in such large quantities that it turns up on most Indian wine lists. You can spend a little more on the even more industrial Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc which thanks to Moet Hennessy, its owners, is ubiquitous on most lists.
As a general rule, Loire valley Sauvignon Blanc (Pouilly Fume, etc.) will work as a pleasant drinking companion and Australasian Sauvignon Blanc may work better with slightly spicier dishes. (I find it less grassy with capsicum-like notes but that could just be me!)
These rules work less well with rice or with red meat. I have surprised many French people by showing them how well a basic Montrachet (say Puligny) can go with an elegant Lucknow biryani. (Chablis Premium Cru for Hyderabad biryani.) Kababs don’t usually have the heavy spicing of most Indian food so a good red will work. If you want something that can stand up to a curry then anything from the Rhone valley should be okay. (California cabernet made in a Parkeresque way works too.)
Remember that our palates are different from Western palates. We are not scared of chilli and because we eat so many spices we can detect more flavours than most Westerners . Hugh Jackson recommends sherry with curry (“best of all” he says) which Indians will regard as an abomination.
Which brings us back to Indian wine. I find the Chandon Rose is okay with most Indian food because the bubbles have a way of refreshing the palate. A lot of people like the spiciness of Australian shiraz (a cousin of many of the Rhone grapes) and some work on the assumption that Indian wines should work best with Indian food - which can be a mistake.
One of these days, Kapil Sekhri will unveil his Maurya wines. I look forward to trying a Bukhara raan or a Dum Pukht korma with one of them.
And I will tell you what I think of the pairing.
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