By Liza B. Zimmerman
The intense, spice layers of Indian food can be challenging to pair with wine. However when you make the right choices they can really complement a range of dishes. I asked a sommelier friend in San Francisco, who has built one of the most Indian-food friendly lists in town, what some of his secrets are for these pairings.
Todd Smith, who is not Indian, but has spent a great amount of time traveling there, has put together an extraordinary wine list at Dosa. The restaurant is an upscale, two-location Southern Indian restaurant that has really raised the bar on high-end, Indian dining and has a wonderful and spice-friendly wine list. It is a restaurant I mention and reference again and again when I talk about savvy restaurateurs who have gone out on a limb to show how beautifully the right wines can work with non-Western cuisine.
Before answering my questions, Smith stressed the fact that his experience with Indian food and wine pairing lies primarily with the foods of Southern India. Let’s not forget how huge and diverse this country is even if many of us might think that we can indulge in all of its flavors at our local Indian restaurant.
Smith said that, “I can't speak much to the foods of the north, as my expertise lies mainly with that of the Southern five states [Karnataka, Goa, Andra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala] and which wines/regions/grapes work with what from the wealth of dishes there.”
Was I surprised that he sent me back five or six pages of ideas on what wine works well with Indian food and why? Not in the least. So I am going to try to do my best to disseminate some of that here in approximately 800 words or less.
While he said that a wide range of wines can be paired with Southern Indian food, certain criteria need to be met. “Given the prolific use of spices and potential heat in South Indian food, one really needs to go dish-by-dish, or within a style to find a suitable wine.
A few solid guidelines, he recommended are to choose wines that are high in acidity, low in alcohol, with little new oak, an expressive in sense of place (think minerals!) and that are vibrant enough to stand up to the competition of spice. He adds that customers often bring in bottles of local California wine from nearby Napa from appellations that feature a very young and oaky style for their big reds, which he often doesn’t see as the best match for the food. His primarily concerns are the strong tannins in these wines, which can spar with the food at Dosa.
White wines should have solid acid levels and be great palate cleansers, or soothers (whites with a little residual sugar or viscous texture) that help to cool the red or green chilies’ burn. This is truer of whites such as demi-sec Chenin Blancs, off-dry or sweeter style German or Austrian Rieslings that are picked later.
For Smith, as far as dosas and uttapams—which are savory, naturally-fermented lentil and rice flour crepes and pancakes with endless fillings which are the mainstay of Tamil Nadu and Kerala—he would choose sturdier whites and lighter reds. While Dosa’s tasting menu offers wine pairings, he generally suggests whites with dosas and uttapams and pairs reds with the curry courses. However, if his guests are eating à la carte, he recommends going into a light red such as the ubiquitous Pinot Noir, but also grapes such as St. Laurent (Austria), Sangiovese (Italy), Plavac Mali (Croatia), Tempranillo (Rioja, Spain), Barbera (Italy) and grapes of the Alps such as Lagreins.
When it comes to red wines, one of the key things is to find reds that are lower in alcohol, according to Smith. He also stresses the importance of serving reds at the correct temperature of 55 to 60 degrees, as this will calm the alcohol and potential for it to get ‘hot’ against the fiery flavors of the food.
In the end, he advises, “Drink what you like. I was once told that a good wine is one you would buy again. It is very personal.” When you are, “on to something. Remember that moment. That is the apex of pairing: when the food improves the wine and the wine really delivers the dish.”
Cheers from DrinkUpNY!
Liza Zimmerman has been writing and consulting about wine and food for two decades. She is principal of the San Francisco-based Liza the Wine Chick wine writing, education and consulting firm. She has worked on staff and freelance at national magazines such as Wine Enthusiast, The Magazine of La Cucina Italiana, Wine Spectator, Where SF and the Examiner. She currently contributes to Cheers, Wine Business Monthly and the Examiner, among others.
Zimmerman focuses on demystifying wine and transforming it into a tool for business and networking for companies all over the country. Past clients include Genentech, Roche and IBM.
She has visited all the world’s major wine regions and is one of select few in the U.S. to hold the Diploma of Wine & Spirits (D.W.S.), the three-year precursor to the Master of Wine.