If you’re eating a well spiced curry, you might naturally reach for a beer, but Terry Kirby’s selection of well-matched vino will help you to think outside the (beer) box
A recent holiday in southern India highlighted once again the difficulties of matching wines to spicy food, and how much is down to individual taste and the specifics of the spicing, which can vary from dish to dish and according to time and place.
And the weather is itself a factor – in 30C Kerala the only choice for me was an ice cold beer to accompany the fish curries and masala dosas.
But, on the rare occasions we could find it, my partner preferred a chilled white wine, such as a chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc, which actually worked reasonably well with such fish and vegetable dishes, because the Keralan spicing is complex and not aggressively packed with chilli.
In the Languedoc last summer, where it was even hotter, we drowned ourselves in buckets of permafrost rosé, which worked much better with Mediterranean cuisine. In neither place did red wines get much of a look in – including the frosty cabernet sauvignon offered from a Keralan hotel fridge.
Back in the more temperate UK, we probably eat more spicy food than ever, whether it’s the latest street food from a market stall, a new Asian fusion restaurant, a robust curry cooked at home or – and I can just about permit it sometimes – a supermarket ready meal. And they can work with wines: it’s just a matter of getting the right match, so long as some principles are observed: generally avoid heavy or tannic reds or oaked whites and remember that sometimes it’s fine to experiment… Although, I would caution against spending lots because of the potential for unwelcome clashes: I still have memories of the waste of an insipid £35 gewurztraminer which was overwhelmed by a creamy but highly spiced green chicken curry in a very plush Thai restaurant.
For fusion dishes or south-east Asian foods with clean, bright, citrus and chilli flavours, a sauvignon or chenin can work even better than with south Indian spice, particularly the New World iteration of the former, where the lemongrass and tropical fruit flavours complement rather than work against the wine – think of the flavours of a Thai salad with mango and prawns and you get the idea.
There are many to choose from, but one which recently appealed was the Tinpot Hut Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017 (£10.99 Simplywinesdirect.uk, £12.49 or £10.99 each as part of mixed six bottle purchase; Drinksdirect.co.uk) which has real pure, bracing acidity. It’s probably best to avoid oaked or aged whites, which clash, or French sauvignons, which are generally too delicate. If you have had a surfeit of sauvignon blanc, try riesling, where again, clear mineral flavours with an aromatic underpinning can work very well with Thai or Vietnamese foods. Try the excellent Chilean take on the grape: Lo Abarca 2017 (£10.00 Marksandspencers.com), which has complementary lime and jasmine notes that will also match Chinese dishes with sweet and sour flavours.
Aromatic viognier is another grape that can handle moderate spicing, but choose a lighter version, rather than the heavier apricot and honey styles, which will cloy. A good example is the lightly acacia blossom scented and refreshing Terre de Lumiere Viognier Celliers Jean d’Alibert IGP Pays d’Oc 2016 (£8.75 Corneyandbarrow.com), a rare white from the Minervois. All of the above would also be a good match for South American ceviche, which has that same chilli and citrus hit.
Rosé can sometimes complement lighter Asian spicing, particularly salads or some Chinese foods, such as baked fish or even dishes like Singapore noodles, very well, but be sure to choose a very dry, mineral herb and orange peel scented Provencal rosé, rather than a fruitier Italian or New World version. There will be many more appearing on the shelves in the coming months as the weather, hopefully, improves, but the Le Petit Diable, Cotes Du Provence 2016, (£9.95 Leaandsandeman.co.uk) with its blend of syrah, cinsault and grenache is exactly the right kind to seek out.
For heavier meat-based dishes and curries it gets a bit more difficult: most of these white wines would be neutered, so seek out youthful but medium to full bodied reds that can stand up to the spicing of say, a balti chicken, a rogan josh or Indonesian beef rendang: try the Pico a Pico Merlot Carmenere (£9.49 Ocado.com). And if it is a tandoori chicken or some lamb seekh kebabs, then think the same kind of satisfying, robust red you would choose for barbecued meats, which is essentially what these dishes are. From South Africa, where they know their braai, the Nederburg 56 Hundred Shiraz 2016 (£5.75 Tesco.com) punches above its weight for price and is definitely able to stand up to the strongest spicing, while the peppery Sicilian Inycon Nero d’Avola Shiraz (£7.99 Waitrose.com) where the shiraz is nicely tempered by the nero d’avola, should also fit the bill.