It's been a long-ass week at work and the only thing in your fridge is a furry jar of pesto. Hunkering down with some pillowy peshwari naan and a lamb biryani is exactly the kind of "nourishing self care act" you've been reading about in all those Tumblr posts. Plus, that hour you wait for the delivery guy to get lost, ring for directions, and finally buzz the right flat is the perfect window in which to make a cornershop booze run.
But step away from the Kingfisher six-pack. A crisp beer might be the obvious choice for washing down a Friday night curry, but many Indian food experts agree that wine is a far better match for the cuisine's aromatic flavours. And with Indian vineyards on the rise, pairing paneer with Pinot Noir could become the new norm.
To kick things off, which wine pairs best with poppadoms?
"It's a funny one, but I actually like a Fino sherry with some poppadoms and various chutneys and spicy things. When you talk about Indian snacks, you talk about street food style-dishes, which have a range of flavours and textures. You have all these flavours like spicy, sweet, sour, and tangy going on and likewise with textures, you have the crunch element and softer textures.
I think sherry is a very underrated drink generally and something that people should drink more of. It's got this lovely savoury, saltiness to it—especially a fino sherry or a Manzanilla. It's great as an aperitif to get your palate going and it can really stand up to spicing."
Moving onto the main event, what goes with the charred flavours of tandoori dishes?
"The clay oven is used quite often in Indian cuisine, particularly in North India. The food develops a smoky flavour—whether it's a meat, fish, or veg—so you have to be quite careful about what you match it with. You can cause some nasty clashes.
With anything smoky, you want to avoid red wines with a lot of dry tannins because it doesn't always bode well with the smokiness. With anything that's also quite spicy, you want to avoid high-alcohol because that can intensify the heat. I would look for anything with a lot of ripe fruit behind it because that emulates sweetness without having that cloying heaviness that you might find with some very sweet wines.
For something like a tandoori lamb chop dish, I would recommend a nice ripe red wine like a Cabernet from South America. It's really ripe and juicy and has a slight spice to it as well."
And what about other types of curry?
"If you're looking at a seafood curry or something like that, a lot of it depends on the richness and the actual seafood you're using. If you have a coconut-based curry with prawns, I wouldn't say that you have to go for a white wine. A nice soft Austrian red like a Zweigelt would match really nicely. Alternatively, if you have a delicate fish a Viognier, a dry Riesling, or a lightly oaked Chardonnay would work well.
A good rule of thumb is that none of the elements in the wine really stand out and it's quite balanced. Otherwise, the wine and food will start competing with each other, which isn't what you want.
Finally, for something like a biryani—another main course which is quite common in India—I think a Pinot Noir is a fantastic match. It's quite fragrant and the biryani has a lot of aromas. Sometimes, a little bit of rosewater will be used in the dish so the Pinot Noir, which is light- to medium-bodied, won't overpower that delicate biryani. It's able to stand up to a meat biryani, as well as a more delicate seafood or vegetarian version."
Which wines are best with spice?
"Something with a bit of residual sugar would help a really spicy dish because it tones it down. When we were launching our collaboration dinners with Noble Rot and Gymkhana, we had a chat on the first course, which is a street food-type dish with yogurt, tamarind, and quite a lot of chili. We matched that with a Riesling with about 70 grams of residual sugar, which balances it out nicely. You don't feel it's that sweet because there's great acidity there. People said the food packed a punch but as soon as you took a sip of the wine, it rounded the dish off and took away some of the harsh chili flavour.
In terms of a red wine, I'd suggest something that's really juicy and ripe. It emulates the same effect that a little bit of residual sugar would have."
If you've got a couple of different dishes on the table, what's a good all-rounder wine?
"Often Indian main courses are eaten with multiple dishes on the table, so if you're trying to find one wine that'll cover a range of food, choose something that doesn't have any element that really stands out. Nothing with a huge amount of acidity, or oak, or tannin. For me, first and foremost, it's about the fruit.
I think that most Austrian wines are a fantastic safe bet with Indian food. Ranging from the whites like Riesling and Grüner Veltliner to the reds like to Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch, there's a common theme which is that they all have good fruit behind them. It's a go-to for me when I see an Austrian wine on the list and I'm having Indian food."
Finally: dessert. What's best to drink with kulfi or halwa?
"The most important thing with desserts is that you need to make sure the wine is sweeter than the dessert, otherwise the dessert will overpower the wine and it'll taste like water. But you don't want it too much more sweeter because it'll just kill the dessert.
With something like kulfi, a Jurançon from the south west of France goes well. Plenty of nice Gewürztraminers are nicely balanced too and have lovely rose and lychee characteristics—flavours that are often used in Indian desserts.
What I always recommend people do is keep tasting. If you're not sure what to buy when you're in the supermarket, buy three of the same grape from different regions or countries to start to understand what the difference is between the three of them. It'll give you a starting point to understand why certain wines have different characteristics."
All illustrations by Alice Duke.