Currying flavour

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Related tags: Wine, Indian cuisine, Spice

I'm guessing that there are a fair number of you out there that offer curry on your menu, or even do special curry nights. But how much thought (if...

I'm guessing that there are a fair number of you out there that offer curry on your menu, or even do special curry nights.

But how much thought (if any) do you put into what wines go best with curry? I know, beer is best with a curry. And it's true, certain beers make a great match for the in-your-face spicing of Indian food. But there are wines out there that can do the job, too.

Not that I've always thought like this. In fact, there was a time when I would stubbornly refuse to entertain the notion that wine could enhance my enjoyment of an Indian meal.

Chilli just overpowers all wine, I thought, and a wine's subtle nuances are lost in all that aromatic flavouring. That was until I met Laurent Chaniac.

Chaniac is the wine buyer and head sommelier at London's Cinnamon Club. Ever since the Westminster restaurant opened its doors in 2001, it has been redefining expectations of Indian cooking.

Chef Vivek Singh and owner Iqbal Wahhab have set Indian food free from its traditional straightjacket ­ including what you drink with it.

The aromatics and fire are still there ­ but involving a much better understanding of spicing. Singh reduces sauces, rather than cooking them up, controlling the sequence in which spices are added so that each spice's individual oils and aromas are released for greater impact.

And it's this French-style layering of flavours that allows the dishes to pair more successfully with wine.

OK, so I'm talking about the top end of Indian cooking here, not boil-in-the-bag rogan josh (not that I'm suggesting that you don't make your own curries from scratch, but I'm guessing there's often a little help on the sauce front).

But you can still learn a thing or two from Chaniac's exhaustive research (he tried 2,000 wines to arrive at his first list).

For example, take a citrussy dry white wine. According to Chaniac (and I've tried it, it works), if the dish is on the sweet side (I'm thinking korma) then the freshness of the wine cuts through it. And if there is a chilli kick, the spices will lift the fruity elements of the wine.

"The heat in Indian cuisine is generated by peppercorn, chilli, clove and cardamom. If these spices are dominant in a dish they work very well with fragrant whites with just a little residual sugar," writes Chaniac in The Cinnamon Club Cookbook (£20, Absolute Press).

The heat from the spices, apparently, are neutralised by the acidity in the wine, letting the fruit show off ­ wines such as Tokay Pinot Gris from Alsace and Riesling from Germany, and Chenin Blanc from both South Africa and the Loire Valley in France.

What about red wine, I hear you ask? Well, Chaniac believes that ubiquitous onion, carom (a cumin relative) and turmeric in a dish play an interesting trick on the character of red wine.

When matched with a juicy red (Pinot Noir, Shiraz et al) the fruit becomes more opulent. And certain spices, such as onion seeds, actually soften the tannins in a firm red (Bordeaux, Douro), making the wine more approachable. While intensely fruity, warm and spicy reds (Argentinean Malbec, Spanish Tempranillo) can easily handle dishes that have equally intense flavours, says Chaniac.

The latest Indian food hotspot to open in the capital is Amaya in Knightsbridge, with an equally ground-breaking wine list.

The owners, Namita and Camellia Panjabi (of Chutney Mary fame) recruited the services of wine consultant and wine writer Matthew Jukes, who selected each wine for their compatibility with Amaya's dishes, organising the list by flavour (my favourite style). The best-seller is an Aussie Riesling (Yalumba's classy handpicked Eden Valley Riesling) which went with a huge variety of dishes I tried there.

So the next time a customer asks you which wine will go best with their curry you'll be able to tell them, won't you?

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