Beer and Indian food are well and truly buddied up. In Britain, we like our Ruby Murray hot and saucy, extinguished with a cooling golden bevvy. Job done.
This cultural association makes ordering wine in your local curry house something of an embarrassment, like drinking saki with a dinner roast. Even if you do end up going BYOB and washing down your saag paneer with a glass of white, it's likely to be whichever cornershop plonk was within grabbing distance of your dinner.
But it's not your fault. In general, hot food seems tricky to pair with wine. Do you go for something equally powerful to match it or is that overkill? Assuming that all Indian food equals hot and overpowering could be our first mistake.
"Some curries are spicy, some are mild, and some are even sweet. There is a lot more to Indian food than the generic spicy curry," explains Aneesh Bhasin, founder of India's first wine and spirits app, Hipcask. "We have two spices—aromatic and hot. When it comes to aromatic food, pairing wines is not an issue."
Bhasin also reckons it is only tannic reds that should be avoided with hot spice. Tannin in red wine adds a bitterness and complexity that can accentuate your curry's own bitterness, overpowering any subtleties. Many wine experts also suggest sticking to crisp, acid-heavy whites when eating Indian food, as they provide contrast to its richness (a bit like squeezing lemon onto a hot dish). If you want to go the other way, a high alcohol content is thought to enhance the heat of a dish.
"When the food is mildly hot, light reds, off-dry whites, and even bubbly go well," says Bhasin. "If the food is too spicy, I would rather have a chilled white or bubbly to offset the heat."
With an increasing number of modern Indian restaurants extending their wine menus, it seems diners are no longer content with a bottle of Kingfisher.
"Recently, we've noticed an explosion for knowledge and a desire to understand food," says Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to receive a Michelin star and chef-proprietor at London's Benares. "This extends to the wines [customers] choose, which can transform their whole experience."
Kochhar pairs his tikka and chutney chicken dish with a South African sequillos, a strong white made with grapes aged in old wood. Then there's the French "Atul's Signature" sauvignon blanc loaded with fruit, rose, and spice flavours that complement the salmon in coconut and curry leaf sauce dish.
It's not just high end restaurants that are getting in on the wine and curry combo. The Virginia-based Narmada Winery is a US vineyard with Indian owners, a cross-continental mix that allows them to create such creative pairings as butter chicken with a tropical chardonnel or papri chaat and vidal bBlanc.
"The aversion to wine and Indian dishes is dissipating," says Narmada's Amy Frazier. "The demographic for wine drinkers is drastically changing as young people's eating habits have changed."
Of course, there are some sceptics. Barry McCaughley, sommelier for Covent Garden Indian restaurant Moti Mahal, has reservations about a mass wine and Indian food revolution. He tells me that while he has noticed restaurants at all levels pairing food and wine, it's not an effortless fit.
When the food is mildly hot, light reds and off dry whites, and even bubbly go well. If the food is too spicy, I would rather have a chilled white or bubbly to offset the heat.
"There is a fundamental lack of matching suitability so most sommeliers get it wrong," he says.
While McCaughley may doubt the suitability of a match between wine and Indian food, India's own wine industry is booming.
"While Indian wine culture has a long way to grow compared to other Asian countries, every year, there is a growth of 15 percent as tabled by the [wine and spirit analysis group] IWSR report," admits Clive Castelino, manager of Charosa Vineyards, one of India's most notable wine producers. "Retailers are offering more shelf space for brand visibility and restaurants are printing special wine menus to encourage wine drinking."
While you might not typically grab an Indian bottle over a French or South African, wines like Castelino's are beginning to gain international recognition. KRSMA Estates is another up-and-coming Indian wine producer and won two Decanter Awards for its chardonnay and sauvignon blanc last year. The vineyard broke new ground—literally—in their region, deciding to grow on the previously untapped land of the Hampi Hills. The soil may have not been ideal for grape growing (rich in iron with a hot climate and little rain fall), but it's exactly what KRSMA founders were after: a "distinctly Indian" taste.
"[Vineyards are] understanding the terroir better and making much better wines as compared to five years ago," says Bhasin, attributing part of the recent growth in Indian wine culture to national growers.
It's not just the attitudes of India's wine producers that are changing. Many also see a difference in diners' drinking habits.
"When I lived in India, spirits would be typically drunk with your meal, whereas now it is common to see wine at the dinner table," says Benares sommelier, Jeepson Lopes. "Wine wasn't understood in India for a long time, but with a new travelled generation, this is no longer the case."
Dino Buonaguidi, chef Indian hotel company Tripzuki attributes this change to "the growth of the Indian middle classes and their perception of Western culture," suggesting that both cultures are gradually borrowing off one another when it comes to eating out.
Or maybe we're all realising that sometimes it just works to let wine and curry battle it out in your mouth in crazy, flavourful harmony.