FOR a nation that loves its booze as much as its Indian food, we have a strangely limited approach when it comes to alcoholic accompaniments for Asian cuisine. It’s not because we only like cheap wine and pints – new figures show that the UK is the biggest importer of Champagne in the world. But when it comes to our biryanis, tandoor grills and curries, if it’s not bottles of Cobra to go with, it tends to be a mediocre, acidic white because the food is “too spicy” to merit anything better.
But how we are missing out. Last week, as I oohed and aahhed over the exquisitely spiced, rich meats and aromatic, saucy fish at Benares, the Michelin-starred purveyor of Indian food in Berkeley Square, I stuck to Diet Coke. It’s fizzy and refreshing, after all. But the (southern Italian) sommelier Costanzo Scala looked mortified – I believe I saw tears in his eyes – and insisted I return to try the uniquely rewarding experience of drinking well-matched fine wine with an Indian dinner, and to mend the error of my ways once and for all.
So I kindly obliged him. If you’re interested in discovering the possibilities of wine with Indian food, somewhere gourmet like Benares is a good choice. Veeraswamy, Trishna, Chutney Mary, Moti Mahal, Amaya or Red Fort would also be good, though there has been much song and dance about the wine list at Benares, as the restaurant has been recently refurbed with a private dining room in the cellar.
Scala thinks Indian food is the most exciting cuisine on earth for a sommelier. “It’s the layers of spices, the subtlety of the composition of flavours, with not one thing overpowering the other, that makes it so brilliant for wine,” he says. The goal, Scala says, is to provide a wine that continues the taste in a silky fluid line from fork to glass – “normal rules cease to exist – it’s about the sauces and flavours, not whether it’s meat, fish or vegetable.” Which is why for people who have not grown up with spicy cuisine, the typical wine choice of Sauvignon Blanc is actually too acid, too sharp and cleansing, and exacerbates spiciness. A rich Chardonnay, though, calms the food down by coating the palate in buttery layers, and smoothing the transition from the food to the drink – actually enhancing the tastes of the dish. Such wines are also natural counterparts to coconut-based sauces.
Our first pairing exemplified Scala’s philosophy of continuity: the dish was spiced soft-shell crab with apple-crab millefeuille and lemongrass and cumin mayonnaise. A lot going on there, but it was a system of checks and balances that all worked like clockwork: the fresh apple-y element lifted the citrussy, rich mayonnaise, all of it elevating the flavours and texture of the sandpapery crab. With this we had a beautiful buttery glass of Journey’s End South African chardonnay – on par with any rich Burgundy – but even more exaggerated, like a rounded burst of popcorn. Its purpose was to bring out the lemongrass/lime element and to continue the creaminess of the mayo. And so it did, transforming as we ate and drank from its original oaky richness into a more citrussy, ambrosial flavour that showed real synergy with the food.
The next wine was astonishing: a Pinot Gris (Jean Claude Gueth 2006 from Alsace) that smelled like a dessert wine, exploding with pear aromas, but that at the last minute withdrew its sweetness into a dry, caramelly white on the palate. Its floral flavours danced around the scallops with their spicy but faintly sweet cauliflower masala and played with the earthiness of the cress. Again, brilliant continuity between fork and glass.
The tandoor monkfish that came next would convert any fish hater into a fish lover, and anyone shy of Indian flavours into an adherent for life. The big, meaty, squeaky-clean tail was doused in a sweet and sour green Nilgiri korma sauce. It was such an attention-grabbing dish that it required a robust white that could quietly assert itself – and that white was the best Indian wine I have tried (they can be pretty ropey) – a Sula 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from Nashik. It magically grasped and enhanced the ginger and coriander of the dish, again providing that wonderful continuity.
Flaunting his “no rules” assertion, Scala next provided a full-bodied South African red (Mont du Toit 2003) to go with meaty coriander and mint tiger prawns in garlic and tomato sauce. The smokiness of the sauce was echoed in the wine, while its acidity was tempered. So when we began to eat meat – pigeon sweetened with pickled mango and beetroot-vanilla chutney, and lamb with chickpeas and rosemary sweet potato – our palates were primed for meatier flavours. The dark fruitiness of a Tempranillo (Urban Ribera 2006) took up the beetroot of the pigeon, while an elegant New Zealand Pinot Noir (Muddy Water 2007) balanced the masculinity of the lamb and pungent chickpea sauce.
If you still have space for sweets, a white Italian blend, Passito della Rocca 2003, kept at bay the sweetness of the dainty Goan coconut jaggery cake with banana basil ice cream.
Not all Indian meals will be so good, but it is safe to say that washing it all down with Cobra is a sorry waste. Sommelier menu £115 per person. www.benares restaurant.co.uk.