With an invite to a wine dinner comes along the suspense of who will be the victim and who the killer, who’ll survive, and who’ll have the last laugh on our palate – the wine or the food. To have them dance in harmony is a rare chance, demanding a toast in its own celebration. It’s usually a monumental fail when the host tries to impress with their best dishes, paired with their best wines, landing on the menu without much prior interaction. We love our food, and there’s an ever-growing club of evolved wine drinkers. Put them together and we have an unprecedented breed of gastronomes. Yet, we’re making cardinal mistakes in pairing nature’s two most discerning produces. India doesn’t have a cuisine but varied cuisines, and the European pairing rules do not apply to our dishes, or eating habits. Probably they didn’t think Indians would some day emerge as a wine-drinking class, avoiding investing efforts in understanding our gastronomic offerings to draft rules specific to our culinary phenomenon. In their paucity then, let’s write our own rules and guidelines. Till that takes shape, here are some of the sins to avoid
IT’s THE SAUCE, NOT THE MEAT
The cardinal rule of ‘whites with whites, reds with reds’ does not work with Indian cuisines. Our foods are dominated by rich gravies. As much as we would love to talk about the quality and the source of our meats, the hero yet remains the gravy or the sauce they sit submerged in. They also define the dish’s character and origin. Thinking of fish, one will immediately think of a crisp white, but gravies like Malvani spicy Pullimanchi, Bengali pungent Shorshe, or Karnataka’s Saaru aren’t white-worthy. A Qorma, Tikka Masala, Palak, and a Changezi sauce deserve very different wine personalities to couple with. International winestyles were created considering the local food. The meat-heavy Bordeaux cuisine works well with its local wines which may not be the best to drink by themselves but work perfectly with the local dishes. The same goes with Aussie Shiraz and their BBQ meats. In India we are yet to grow wines everywhere and our winemaking to evolve in the shadow of our gastronomy, till then we experiment and learn, and stick to pairing with the gravies.
FOCUS ON ONE – FOOD OR THE WINE
In Italy, or Eataly as I call it, winemakers often host dinners in trattorias or a home kitchen setting than in a fine dinning restaurant. Producers know that food and wine are a couple that compliment each other, fill the gaps in one’s performance, and emerge as a duo in sync and harmony. If they both were to yell and shout in the desperation of shining brighter, there’ll be chaos in the gastronomic paradise as well as on our palates. If you’re stepping out for a food-centric meal at a renowned restaurant, let wines be a supporter and not the star. And, it’s only sensible to not have experimental or extraordinary food in the company of legendary wines. Let one shine and have its day, and the other not winning on the table but in morality.
CATCH THE UMAMI
Umami, the fifth element in food, is the underlying flavour created by the amalgamation of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It is the savoury character found in meats, fish, vegetables, and dairy products. Indian foods are Umami-rich, and it’s amongst the biggest culprit in food & wine matching. It’s hard to balance as our likability towards Umami is not only varied, it’s also hard to express it in vinous contexts. Mexican, Chinese, and Greek cuisines are also Umami rich, and it isn’t surprising how quickly beers and spirits replace the humble wine copas with them. It becomes imperative thus to understand umami and tackle it at a personal level. Best is to order fruity or off-dry wines that aid in curbing umami’s overwhelming nature and making space for self to stand in the mix. Some well-ages Rieslings, Indian Viogniers, Argentine Torrontes, Alsatian Pinot Gris work really well with this delectable mysterious character.
BIGGER THE DISH, BIGGER THE WINE
A marriage of spices is a commanding feature of our cuisines, and so is heat and chillies. Now there may be a broad understanding that the stature and character of a dish must be matched by the wine’s personality. This may stand correct but it fails specifically with our foods. Spices and heat are best left by themselves. They not only overwhelm wines’ flavours they also make their alcohol, tannins, and oak astringent and sharper, rendering them unpalatable through a negative conversation between the two. The same goes for flavours. Our foods at times have some really delicate flavours, and they are a real challenge to pair with. Avoid pairing acidic wines with them, they can be sharp and tart and may completely throw away the flavour, texture, structure, and the appeal of the dish. Low acidity wines like Viognier and Gewürztraminer extract and accentuate these fine hidden flavours. While these wines may not be the best sipping proposition, they have their own unique identity when matching with food
BUBBLIES WORK WITH EVERYTHING, NAAHHHH!!
Who doesn’t like Brunches? There’s everything to eat and just one happy-go-lucky bubbly to be pals with that smorgasbord of flavours. However, to return with the impression that bubblies work with everything is incorrect. Especially with desserts. Bubblies may be celebration wines but they don’t sit well with cakes, pastries, or anything with even a hint of sweetness. They are sharp, acidic, and dry, and your desserts are anything but that. Sweetness in food is always balanced with higher sweetness in wines, else the result is bitter and astringent. Bubblies, minus Proseccos, are known for their bready, yeasty, musty, animally notes, and these aren’t the best match for your dolces.
With personal flavour preferences, intensity tolerances, and likability towards a certain cuisine, meat, veggie, and wine-style, varietals, your mood and pocket’s strength, it could be a herculean task for your server to catch the perfect pairing. There are more chances of it failing than making your day and leaving a mark on our palate’s memory. The same wine, the same food, under the same setting may fail to charm your fancies on another day, simply because there are human elements involved in the mix too. With a universe of permutations and combinations to explore, get cracking, taste more, experiment more, and fail more, in pursuit of that perfect pairing.
First published in Food And Wine Magazine in August, 2015