We’re not going to say ‘forget the beer’. Because beer IS a great match with Indian food. But if you think wine doesn’t work with Indian food, how about trying this. Orange wine with tandoori chicken. Chilled red wine with curries. No champagne – they’re often too complex – but it’s yes to a glass of a bubbly that’s less expensive, wilder, more “crunchy” – Rajat Parr’s favourite word when it comes to matching wine with Indian food.
When we decided to look for tips on how to pick wine to match the diverse and sometimes fiery flavours of Indian food, who better than Parr, an award-winning Indian-American sommelier turned winemaker and co-owner of Sydney’s fun, irreverent Indian eatery, Don’t Tell Aunty.
We also hit up someone else who’s spent many, many hours over the past two years thinking about matching wine to the diverse flavours of Indian food: Australian Sarah Todd.
Todd, the former Masterchef star who jumped in the deep end three years to set up a restaurant on the island of Goa, has taken up the challenge again, this time with a wine bar in Mumbai with an ambitious plan to offer more than 300 wines from more than 30 regions around the world (an experience documented in the new SBS series My Second Restaurant in India). That’s a lot of potential wine-food combinations to get your head around!
So what do Parr and Todd suggest we look for when matching wine to Indian food?
Skip the sweet white
“People often think the only thing you can ever pair with Indian food is a really, really sweet riesling but it's not true,” says Todd.
Instead, Parr tells us, look for fresh wines with character and a good dose of acidity.
Born in Calcutta, Parr is these days based in Santa Barbara, where along with his Don’t Tell Aunty co-owner Jesse Singh he also runs Bibi Ji, a popular wine bar-restaurant, and is a partner in a winery. Both of his eateries have interesting, well-crafted wine menus that show just what a wide variety of wine works with Indian food, from the Australian sparkling red on the Bibi Ji list to a chardonnay from Parr’s own winery on the Sydney wine menu.
When it comes to whites, he says, go for ones that are “crisp, clean, low alcohol. Wines with at least medium to high acidity, and with some residual sugar, though not very sweet”.
Which doesn’t rule out a riesling – there are five on the Don’t Tell Aunty wine list – but also opens welcomes semillon, sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc to the table.
Try a red (and a chilled one, at that)
Reds “really work” with Indian food, Parr says. Opt for something with character and spice. “Wines that are not very tannic, wines that are not high in alcohol, and wines that are more fresh and kind of crunchy, and more herbal and spicy.”
What does “crunchy” mean when it comes to wine? “It's like biting into a crunchy vegetable or a crunchy fruit, not like a ripe and overripe fruit, you know?” The wines, he says, need to have character. He suggests a gamay, or a “crunchy, low-alcohol, earthy syrah [shiraz], not a heavy tannic one.” He also gives a thumbs up to lighter versions of pinot noir, grenache and rosé.
And if you’re eating Indian at home, Parr has another tip – pop the bottle of red in the fridge for half an hour or so before you drink it. “Because the food is hot, spicy, so serve reds slightly cool.
Try a rosé with this eggplant and pumpkin green curry recipe.
Make sure it’s got a bit of bracing acidity (but not too many years)
“A wine with some acidity will help balance the spices,” says Parr.
It will keep things interesting too: If you’re eating an Indian banquet, full of different flavours, or a dish that’s particularly punchy, a decent level of zinging acidity helps to prevent palate fatigue.
And when it comes to age, a younger wine is a better bet. “Old wines will get lost,” he says.
Balance what’s in your bowl
Matching wine with food is like matching ingredients in a recipe, says Todd: “When you're pairing food together… you need to balance the dish. So, if you're having a sweet element then you need to have a sour element, a saucy element. One can't be more overpowering than the other.
“This is the same when it comes to alcohol. You need balance. So you can't pair a super heavy spicy red wine with a really light delicate fish. And the cuisine all over India has different levels of spice. It has different levels of fat. So all these things come into consideration when pairing food with wine.”
The huge diversity of cooking styles that full under the ‘Indian food’ umbrella mean there can be no single set of rules – instead, it’s more like a game, where you, the diner, get to have fun and experiment.
It is, for example, a great opportunity to explore a Parr favourite, orange wines aka skin-contact wines (white wines are normally made by pressing grapes and then fermenting the juice, but these are wines made from white grapes, where juice has had time in contact with the skins and seeds, giving the resulting wine an amber or orange colour). “Skin contact wines work really well with Indian food,” Parr says. This is because the skins and seeds yield a wine with more tannin and more robust flavours. The Don’t Tell Aunty list, for example, features an intriguing example: The Ravensworth 7 Months, from the Murrumbateman area near Canberra, made with a mix of four grape varieties including pinot gris and riesling, and fermented on skins for, well, no surprise given the name, seven months. (Sorry wine lovers, the winery website lists the current vintage as sold out, but we couldn’t resist mentioning it because a ) it sounds like one worth keeping an eye out for and b ) winemaker’s Bryan Martin’s tasting notes describe this as “Exotic, expressive and absolutely full of complexity with aromas of spice, lantana and quince” with … wait for it, “crunchy" phenolics. Now that sounds like a wine made for Indian food, doesn’t it!)
A simple vegetarian dish - like this yellow dhal with peas (arhar dhal matar) recipe - can make a great starting point for the wine matching fun.
Parr also gives a nod to sparkling wines. And while he does have bottles from Champagne at Don’t Tell Aunty and Bibi Ji, here’s the good news for your budget: he says most champagnes are too complex for Indian food. Instead, he suggests a pet nat (aka pétillant-naturel – where the wine is bottled before fermentation is finished, creating a sparkling wine that’s less bubbly than champagne, and with simpler but often very food-friendly flavours, and good acid balance – if you’ve never tried one, this explanation of the style and its appeal will probably make you want to do so immediately).
Remember, all of these are tips, not rules. In the end, says Todd, drinking wine should be fun. Experiment. And see what works for you.
My Second Restaurant in India airs Saturdays 6.30pm on SBS Food (Channel 33). After they air, episodes will stream at SBS On Demand. Find Sarah Todd at her website and on Instagram. Find more from Rajat Parr in his book The Sommelier's Atlas of Taste and on Instagram.
Find inspiration in the SBS Food Indian recipe collection.
Sukka means ‘dry’, so less liquid is added to this recipe compared with others. There are many versions in India, but perhaps the most famous is this Malayali breakfast dish from Kerala, a tangle of browned onions, curry leaves, green chillies and tomatoes. Try it with rice dosa, or some buttered toast! “Kumar Mahadevan is a master of spicing and this mix, to create juicy, delicious chicken, is one of his best recipes. The yoghurt marinade helps tenderise the chicken.” Maeve O'Meara, Food Safari Fire A classic from my Ultimate Curry Bible, this dish is such as favourite with the British that I have to include it here. You could think of this recipe as "vindaloo light". It has the garlic, vinegar, black pepper and chillies - in this case chilli powder - that a vindaloo requires, but in gentle quantities. Serve with plain rice.
Sukka means ‘dry’, so less liquid is added to this recipe compared with others.
There are many versions in India, but perhaps the most famous is this Malayali breakfast dish from Kerala, a tangle of browned onions, curry leaves, green chillies and tomatoes. Try it with rice dosa, or some buttered toast!
“Kumar Mahadevan is a master of spicing and this mix, to create juicy, delicious chicken, is one of his best recipes. The yoghurt marinade helps tenderise the chicken.” Maeve O'Meara, Food Safari Fire
A classic from my Ultimate Curry Bible, this dish is such as favourite with the British that I have to include it here. You could think of this recipe as "vindaloo light". It has the garlic, vinegar, black pepper and chillies - in this case chilli powder - that a vindaloo requires, but in gentle quantities. Serve with plain rice.