The countries of South Asia boast an incredible diversity of regional cuisines. This wealth of flavors combined with a dazzling array of ingredients can make pairing wine seem like a daunting task at first glance. But if you’re a wine lover, you don’t need to switch to beer if you’re tucking into a curry or a karahi. With these easy tips in your back pocket, you’ll be able to pair South Asian food with wine like a pro in no time.
“I pair spice with grapes that ‘like’ spice,” says Marissa Copeland, the wine director at the highly-acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant Junoon in NYC. Fruit-forward wines are a safe pick with most South Asian recipes, regardless of whether you’re enjoying a meat or vegetable dish.“There is a certain ‘juiciness’ I look for.”
For white wine drinkers, save your Chardonnays for another occasion, because aromatic varieties tend to work best. “Riesling, Semillon, Marsanne-Rousanne blends, and Viognier all work well,” Copeland says. She’s quick to point out that under-the-radar varieties like Carricante and Cortese make brilliant pairings thanks to their bright acidity and fragrant profile.
Let the Flavors Be Your Guide
Look to sauces and spices when you’re selecting a wine for your meal. The simplest trick here is to opt for complementary pairings. “Ginger loves white Bordeaux, which is usually a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc,” says Copeland. Semillon makes a fantastic pairing for many of the earthy aromatic spices, like those that show up in an aloo saag.
“Saffron likes anything with an orange peel note which can be found in red Rhone blends and also white Rhone Blends.” Pepper-laden dishes shine with a like for like pairing. According to Copeland, “Foods with peppercorn-spice like ‘peppery’ grapes like Syrah and Cabernet Franc.”
Earthy spices like garam masala and cumin go well with wines that share their earthy profile. For instance, lamb gosht is fantastic with a red Rioja.
Pairing with Heat
There are a few guidelines for pairing with heat. It’s hard to go wrong with a contrasting pairing of sweet and heat, as wines with a touch of residual sweetness help take the edge off spicy dishes. You can also opt for off-dry to sweet wines, such as certain German Rieslings, Chenin Blanc (look for Vouvray demi-sec), or my personal favorite with chingri maatch, Moscato d’Asti. Gewürztraminer offers a brilliant pairing with spicier recipes, but its heady aromas can overpower milder dishes.
If sweet wines aren’t really your thing, play it safe with lower alcohol wines. Alcohol tends to turn up the heat when it encounters chilies, so you’ll want to avoid wines above 14% alcohol.
Deeply-hued fruity rosés from regions like Rioja or Tavel, or made from grapes like Agiorgitiko or Primitivo (the Italian version of Zinfandel), are killer options which work with everything from fish to chicken, goat, beef, and even veggie-based dishes.
Love red wine? You can get away with pairing hot dishes with a glass of red, but there are a few rules you may want to bear in mind. We’ve talked about how lower alcohol wines are a better choice for pairing with spicy dishes, but if you’re a red wine drinker, you’ll need to watch out for tannins. Like high alcohol, high tannins emphasize heat, so certain wines are off the table. Instead, look for fruit-forward reds like Grenache, Malbec, or a red blend from the south of France. Lower tannin options include New World Pinot Noir, Frappato, Gamay, and Barbera. Copeland also recommends “less-well-known grapes like Lambrusco.”
Heavy oak and spice tend to be at odds, but if you’re a seasoned spice fanatic, she says, “You will probably be fine with the heat going up and will be okay having an oaked California Cabernet with your food.”
Food and wine pairing is more of an art than a science, so feel free to experiment with matching the wines you love with your favorite dishes. You might discover a winning pairing that brings the best out of both the contents of your glass and the food on your plate.
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