Deep heat treatment: Indian restaurant winelists

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Drinks: Wines
Location: India

There’s a growing realisation that you can match Indian food with wine. Fiona Sims talks to some of the sommeliers at the forefront of a movement determined to prove that there’s more to life than lager


There’s something odd going on in the on-trade: for a great glass of wine, people are heading to Indian restaurants. Some of the capital’s best wine lists can now be found there. OK, so we’re not talking high-street curry houses here, but smart establishments – the kind that might have a Michelin star.

These lists are put together by fanatical sommeliers convinced that Indian cuisine has as many pairing opportunities as traditionally wine-friendly European cuisine, sourcing from a gamut of grape varieties from all over the vinous world and working closely with ingredients to understand how each element functions. Sommeliers such as Laurent Chaniac.

THE RIGHT SPICE

The Frenchman loves pairing wine with spice. He looks after the wine list at The Cinnamon Club in London’s Westminster, and its newest opening, Cinnamon Kitchen– both highly rated Indian restaurants. The first caters for big spenders with a traditional outlook, while the second, a more casual eatery, finds customers more willing to experiment.

Chaniac has spent the past few weeks working on the new 250-bin list at The Cinnamon Club – the first proper rework in three years. His focus? Grape varieties. ‘For reds, we are showcasing fruit that carries a lot of freshness, wines that aren’t too tannic, and for whites, aromatic varieties such as Riesling, Pinot Gris and white Rhône – Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. The key thing that you have to remember is to have wines that are more powerful than the dish. The wines need to have a big personality. And I’m not looking for sweetness – I go more for fruit definition and a balance of acidity and tannins. Good wines, at the end of the day,’ he explains.

The key thing is to have wines that

are more powerful than the dish

Australia has a big appeal for Chaniac, and the country’s wines now outnumber French wines on the list. ‘They generally carry more fruit and are less dry, which is what we want,’ he says. South Africa, too, has a fair few new listings. And he would have put more Portuguese reds on if he thought he could sell them. ‘I love their fleshy, upfront fruit with silky smooth tannins – perfect for this food, but they’re tricky, huh?’

Another focus for the new list is wines that show minerality. ‘It goes hand in hand with a wine’s freshness. A wine with minerality and freshness has a similar effect to yoghurt on hot dishes,’ he reveals. He finds a ready source of these wines through organic and biodynamic producers in the Languedoc and Loire Valley, making a note on the wine list to alert customers of their status. ‘I know these wines can be strange sometimes – they smell like the bruised apples in my grandma’s cellar, but it’s all to do with the wild yeast, which gives freshness, and which also goes very well with this cuisine.’

Cinnamon Kitchen, meanwhile, has 130 wines on the list, also focusing on grape varieties, and also drawing from all over the world. Chaniac introduced 500ml carafes to the restaurant three months ago, which are going down well, and – perhaps most importantly – encouraging customers to experiment.

HEADING SOUTH

Customers are also happily experimenting at Quilon. The St James restaurant might not have the services of a top sommelier, but the Michelin-starred southern Indian restaurant has put a lot of thought into its wine list, specially devised by wine consultant and Master of Wine Peter McCombie.

The 137-bin list is split by style. ‘It’s easiest for us to sell and easiest for the customer,’ says manager Santanu, who says that Chablis used to be the mainstay before they launched the new list, but now it’s Riesling, with Pinot Noir the biggest-selling red.

Quilon has also introduced 80 wines available by 375ml carafes, which accounts for 30% of sales, with customers choosing them mostly to experiment. The cuisine is Southern Indian, which means no cream or butter but plenty of coconut – a factor that is clearly going to affect the wine selection. ‘We’ve found that medium-bodied wines fare better in general, with a little more sweetness to cope with the coconut,’ says Santanu.

Chablis used to be the mainstay

before they launched the new

list, but now it’s Riesling

The newest kid on the block is Trishna, off Marylebone High Street. Austrian general manager Leo Kiem was a sommelier in a former life in Vienna, but is only too happy to step into the cellar again and is enjoying the challenge brought by the spicy cuisine. The list, at 160 bins, is one of the capital’s most exciting, with a focus on France, Italy, Germany and Austria.

‘All the theory that you learned before doesn’t apply with Indian cuisine. I never judge a wine on its own – I’ll always try it with the food, and the outcome is generally very interesting. When it comes to chilli and spice, wine behaves in a weird way,’ he concludes.

TRIAL & ERROR

His current favourite match is an Alsace Chasselas from Pierre Frick with Trishna’s mussels, cooked in coconut milk, ginger, shallots, lime and turmeric. It works – I’ve tried it. And if you were thinking that maybe a Gewürztraminer would have been a better option, you can think again. ‘Gewürz works with certain foods, but, most of the time, it’s just too overpowering, especially with fish,’ declares Kiem.

In fact, Kiem thinks there are many different wines out there that will go with Indian cuisine. ‘It’s just a matter of trial and error – even Bordeaux works when the fruit is upfront and the tannins are soft,’ he says. He recommends working closely with your suppliers. ‘You have to ask them what they think will go with what and let them give you samples to try,’ he advises.

Will this mindset ever trickle through to the high street? ‘The biggest stumbling block is the Indians themselves. Wine is not in their culture and they are scared it won’t work with food – but they just need to open their minds,’ says Kiem.

Jaimon George reckons he has opened his mind. The India-born manager of Asha’s Indian Restaurant and Bar in Birmingham has increased its wine sales by 20% since it launched its new wine list three months ago. He has replaced the pedestrian red and white category, displayed in order of price, and now sets out the list by style.

‘What’s happened is that, instead of going for their regular Shiraz, customers are choosing another wine in that same category, as well as spending more on wine,’ reports George, who worked closely on the list with sole supplier Matthew Clark. Wine training is next on his agenda, and he has courses scheduled for his staff in the coming months.

So does this mean an end to mundane Muscadet with tikka masala? Let’s hope so. Watch this space.


Tailor-made wines for Indian cuisine

Berkmann Wine Cellars has launched a range of wines for the on-trade that are specially blended to go with Indian cuisine. Called Tamarind Garden, it is a first for the company and a first for a UK merchant, according to purchasing director Alex Hunt.

‘We did it because we saw a clear gap in the market for wines specifically crafted to match mainstream Indian restaurant cuisine, and this sector is becoming more interested in wine – it’s been waiting to happen. At the moment, you are forced to put up with the staples – Sancerre, Muscadet, Chablis et al, which don’t really go with the food at all,’ says Hunt. The wines are not aimed at the sommelier, he explains, but at managers and restaurant owners who want to take the easy option.

Hunt and co decided to source their wines from Chile. ‘Why? Because it offers great value for money and lots of lovely ripe fruit flavours.’ And yes, he sat down with a load of takeaway curries and decided what match worked. ‘We tried dozens of different combinations, with a panel of tasters, before deciding which two blends worked the best,’ he explains.

The red is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Carmenère. ‘We found this most suitable for the more assertive flavours of a jalfrezi and a rogan josh,’ explains Hunt, while the white wine is an unusual pairing of 90% Chardonnay and 10% Gewürztraminer, chosen to go with the milder, creamier curries such as korma and tikka masala.


Five great wines to go with Indian food

Saumur, Cuvée la Pierre Frite 2007, Domaine du Pas
Saint Martin, Loire, France (Vinothentic)

Qupé Marsanne 2006, Santa Ynez Valley, California, US
(Fields, Morris & Verdin)

Gioia del Colle Primitivo 2005, Fatalone, Puglia, Italy
(Les Caves de Pyrène)

Pérez Cruz Côt (Malbec) Reserve Limited Edition 2006, Maipo Valley, Chile (Novum Wines)

Comte Peraldi Blanc, Vermentino 2007, Corsica
(Georges Barbier of London)


Wait a minute… That’s impossible!
Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be amazed as Mr Laurent Chaniac, the Master of the Masala, the King of the Korma, proves that you really can match Indian food with all styles of wine

FRESH, DRY WHITES 
(such as Italian Soave and Australian Semillon)

Chaniac suggests a dish that contains a spice that is itself acidic, or has sweet characteristics – one harmonising, the other contrasting. ‘If there is chilli in the dish, the spices will lift the fruity elements of the wine,’ he says.

FRAGRANT WHITES
(such as Riesling, Tokay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc)

For wines with upfront fruit and contrasting acidity, he suggests any dish where the heat is generated by peppercorns, chilli, cloves and cardamom. ‘If these spices are dominant in a spice mix, they work very well with wines that are fragrant with a little residual sugar. The heat from the spice is neutralised by the acidity in the wine, allowing the fruit to show on the palate.’

INTENSE, FRUITY WHITES
(such as Chardonnay, Roussanne and Viognier)

Chaniac advises hot dishes. ‘The fruit of the wine should be intense enough to cope with the heat, though avoid barrel-fermented white wines as they tend not to work with hot spices, resulting in a bitter aftertaste.’

JUICY REDS
(such as Gamay, Merlot and Zinfandel)

These demand gentle spicing. ‘Chillies can be present as long as they are not the dominant spice. The presence of onion, carom seeds and turmeric will play a very interesting trick on the character of the wine, softening the freshness on the palate and making the fruit taste more opulent,’ he says.

ELEGANT, FIRM REDS
(such as Bordeaux, Rhône, or Ribera del Duero)

These call for intense flavours – although again chilli must not be a dominant flavour, Chaniac warns. ‘It’s important that the tannins do not react to the heat from the spices, as the flavours will simply become overbearing, destroying the fruit element of the wine.’ An ingredient such as tamarind can bring it all together, while spices like onion seeds and ajowan soften the tannins and make the wine more approachable.

WARM, SPICY REDS
(such as Argentine Malbec and Spanish Tempranillo)

These wines handle intense dishes the best, says Chaniac. ‘Spices such as ginger, turmeric, ajowan and fresh berries have natural acidity and balance the heat from the chilli and spice from the cloves, reflecting positively on the wine.’

BIG, RIPE, BOLD REDS
(such as Barossa Valley Shiraz or Puglian Primitivo)

These are an ideal match with hot dishes. ‘Spices such as fennel, cumin, cloves and chilli require powerful red wines to match,’ he declares.


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