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Special Feature - Wine And Food

Krina Patel

The other day I stopped to glance at the menu of a small Indian restaurant in my neighborhood.  It was the usual menu featuring all those dishes that bring to mind the colors of the Indian flag, saffron (practically all the meat and many of the vegetable dishes), green (the palaak and peas dishes) and white (the ubiquitous kheer for dessert)!  But what stood out was the wine list.  There was Sula, the much touted Indian wine, jostling for space with white and red wines from France, Italy and the United States. Yes, Indian wine has leaped into restaurant menus and liquor store shelves in the UK and increasingly in the US.  Western wine journals and critics discuss the Indian wine industry that is said to be growing at the rate of 30%.  Jancis Robinson, the well-known British wine critic has complimentary things to say about Indian wine and writes that Indians themselves tend to be far too damning of their own wine!  Now why is that? Instead of speculating on the reasons about why Indians tend not to appreciate their own wine I rather discuss how to understand wine.  How to appreciate wine especially wine with Indian food?

 Wines are presented in a complicated and confusing manner to the consumer.  Here is a sample white wine list from a local Indian restaurant:

2005 Marco Felluga, Collio, Italy “Pinot Grigio” 10

2003 Federspiel, Terrassen domaine-wachau, Austria “Gruner Veltlner” 8

2002 Heissenberg, Domaine Julien Meyer, Alsace “Gewurztraminer” 9

2004 Eilenz Ayl Kupp, “QbA” Mosel, Germany “Riesling” 8  

So, there you are about to order your favorite Kabuli Chana or Saag panner but which of these whites is going to compliment the jeera flavored oniony Kabuli Chaana or the mildly cheesy saag panner? Hmm!

Each of these grape varieties or varietals, Pinot Grigio, Gruner Veltlner, Gewurtztraminer and Reisling have their distinct characteristics.  These are some of the well-known white varietals.  The others are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Muscat and Chenin Blanc. 

Wine from Pinot Grigio also known as Pinot Gris grapes can be made in a couple of different styles. The Pinot Grigio from Italy mostly the north east part of Italy has a distinct style, light with a crisp acidity in other words a flavor leaning towards tart-khatta (the wine critics would lambast me for simplifying this to “tart” but this is the closest I can come to helping you understand more or less the sort of taste to expect.  It is certainly not sweet-meetha) and relatively easy to drink.  Depending on your palate or personal preference, the season, the time of day among other considerations, it might go well with the Kabuli Channa.  In fact Kabuli Channa is heavy, in fact almost “fatty” so a wine such as an aged Chardonnay from Burgundy or California could also possibly go well with this dish.  Further along the same wine list is a Chardonnay from California. I would give that a try if I was ordering the Kabuli Channa.  That’s the other thing about wine these days. Unlike in the past, because of advances and the spread of the wine industry quite good quality wines are made across the board and available at a reasonable price (unless of course you are drinking it in India but we’ll discuss that some other time). So, if you are into understanding wine, Rule#1 is, try different wines especially with food.  Educate your palatte!

As we go down the sample list we see other grape varieties such as Gruner Veltlener and Gewurtztraminer. The former is mostly grown in Austria and the later, grown in different regions but most well-known in the Alsace region of France bordering Germany and in Germany itself.  Gerwurtz is widely recommended with Indian food because of the pungent, spicy aroma of the wine especially the lychees, roses and cashews it evokes. All smells and tastes that we Indians are familiar with.  Again, I say try the wine before going with what is widely suggested.  Just like beer. There was a time, in fact even today, the common view is that beer goes best with Indian food. And yes it does, in fact the availability of hundreds of different types and styles of beers here in the US makes the process of selection and taste most exciting but lets stay with wine for now. 

A word about the significance of the year of the vintage.  The vintage year is the year the grapes were harvested.   This is important because of the close relationship between climate, soil and grapes.   The quality of wine depends to an extent on the weather in the particular year the grapes were harvested as well as the soil of the region. But these are not the only factors.  Another is the process of production. This includes the number of years the wine was aged after the grapes were harvested.  And how it was aged?  Small wonder then that the world of wine is so confusing!   That glass of wine is quite full!  As you can see a lot of thought goes into producing it.

The first step into the wine world is to recognize the primary ingredient, the grapes.  I have introduced you to the main white varieties.  Now a quick word about the main red grape varieties. These are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese among others.   Rosé wines (my favorites for this time of the year) are also made from red grape varieties.   Lets discuss Rosés next time but before that go out and taste a Rosé.  Some good Rosés come from Provence and the Rhone Valley in France, and from Navarra in Spain. Remember tasting requires only a small amount. So, if you are tasting, gather friends and pour a small amount for each of them. The important part is to understand wine and appreciate it with your senses about you.  So, for understanding wine Rule # 2 is:  Have your senses clear and Rule # 3: Taste wine with food and friends. 

Krina Patel is an educator based in Cambridge, MA. Her doctoral work at Harvard University with  food artisans led her to the world of wine first in Italy and now here in the United States where she is completing the advanced certificate course administered by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust of the UK.



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