Carmenère and Curry

If curry is our national dish in Britain, as some maintain, then the traditional drink to partner it is lager – although perhaps for authenticity it ought to be India Pale Ale. For most people even the suggestion of something other than beer with a curry often produces incredulity.

However, I regularly tell my students that red wines are much better at meeting and matching the flavours of a curry than any thing else.

This is true if you are seeking integration of flavour and a mingling of flavour in the mouth. It is not the case if you are seeking a palate cleanser instead.

Food and wine pairing is not an exact science, some matches work because of the similarity of the flavours and some work because of contrasts.

Some people seem to assume that the old ‘rules’ are outdated, I am not so sure myself – in general they seem to still hold good advice.

White wine with fish and red wine with meat – that still holds up I think. For most people’s taste it is unwise to go against this as the proteins in fish make red wine taste metallic and unpleasant. If you like it, fine, but most people seem not to.

However generally speaking there is only one golden rule in my opinion – match, or meet, the strongest flavour on the plate and all will be well.

So, if the dish is chicken – that would suggest a light white wine. However, if it is cooked in a rich sauce then something heavier might well work better.

So, that makes finding a wine to partner curry something of a challenge.

Lager cleanses the palate to leave the mouth fresh, a bit like having light dry white wine with a pepper steak, whereas most wine interacts with what you eat.

Many people like to drink a Gewürztraminer with spicy food, because it is thought to be slightly spicy itself – personally I do not agree with that, and do not enjoy that combination.

For a long time I have favoured a Sparkling Shiraz with Indian Curry because the spicy flavours of the wine meet the flavours of the food, while it is also cold and refreshing.

So, if Sparkling Shiraz works with Indian curry, then Shiraz will too. Then what about other spicy red grapes? Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Zinfandel might all work, but a certain generosity of fruit is also called for in my opinion, so Carmenère would seem an ideal candidate.

Wines of Chile, the body that promotes Chilean wines, certainly think so and they held a tasting that partnered 39 different Carmenères with a range of Indian dishes.

Anita Jackson from Wines of Chile explains the thinking here:

The event was held in the glamorous surroundings of the Benares Restaurant in Berkeley Square where the Executive Chef, Jitlin Joshi, and Head Sommelier, Costanzo Scala, had got together to create a menu that would really test the ability of Chile’s speciality grape to partner Indian food.

First I tried all the wines and they were a pretty good line up of Carmenères from different regions – even a rosé, which looked gorgeous and I had great hopes for, but when tasted it didn’t excite me actually and was not a good match with the food either.

It was good to try such a wide range from different areas, there were wines from:

Elqui, Limari, Aconcagua, Maipo, Rapel, Cachapoal, Colchagua, Curicó and Maule as well as the Central Valley appellation – map of Chile’s regions here.

For me the wines that stood out fell into three categories:

Fine and complex – really great wines.

Rich and enjoyable – not complex, but very pleasurable.

Straightforward and fun – really nice, simple commercial wines.

My favourite fine and complex Carmenères were:

2007 Tres Palacios Family Vintage Carmenère

A very classy and elegant wine with integrated, firm, spicy oak, rich fruit, lovely spices and balancing acidity – 92/100 points.

Around £12 – contact Ellis of Richmond for stockists

2007 Ventisquero ‘Grey’ Carmenère

Another classy wine with deeper chocolate and mocha notes as well as good acidity, spice and firm tannins on the finish – 91/100 points.

Around £11 – contact PLB for stockists

2006 Concha y Toro Terrunyo Carmenère

A very intense wine with creamy ripe blackberry fruit and sweet, ripe tannins, smoky oak and rich spice – 91/100 points.

Around £15 – contact Concha y Toro UK for stockists

2006 Montes Purple Angel Carmenère

An incredibley concentrated wine with a lifted floral, violet nose, rich sugar plum fruit, integrated oak spice, fruit spice and savoury leather and coffee notes – 93/100 points.

Around £25 – contact PLB for stockists

My favourite rich and enjoyable Carmenères were:

2008 Tamaya Carmenère

Extremely pleasurable, unoaked wine with rich fruit, peppery spice and a smooth richly fruity palate. – 88/100 points.

Around £8 – contact McKinley Vintners for stockists

2009 Errázuriz Estate Carmenère

Supple and juicy, fleshy and well balanced with real freshness to balance the spice – 88/100 points.

Around £8 – contact Hatch Mansfield Agencies for stockists

2008 Terra Andina Reserva Carmenère

Very smooth and creamy ripe wine with a soft, smooth palate and good balance – 88/100 points.

Around £8 – contact Santa Rita Europe for stockists

2008 Via Wines Oveja Negra Single Vineyard Carmenère

REally quite elegant with restrained fruit, subtle spice and oak and a smooth, dry finish – 89/100 points.

Around £10 – contact Liberty Wines for stockists

2008 Haras de Pirque Equus Carmenère

Enticing fruit, delicate spice, nice weight, juicy fruit and good balance – 87/100 points.

Around £8 – contact Berkmann Wine Cellars for stockists

My favourite straightforward and fun Carmenères were:

2009 Nativa Terra Carmenère (Organic)

Fleshy, fruity, juicy and fun – 85/100 points.

Around £7 – contact Santa Rita Europe for stockists

2008 Echeverria Carmenère Reserva

Smooth and very pleasant with light raspberry fruit, subtle spice and good balance – 85/100 points.

Around £10 – contact Hallgarten Druitt for stockists

2008 San Pedro Castillo de Molina Carmenère

Lovely juicy plump fruit, balanced oak and spice and a soft finish, very attractive – 85/100 points.

Around £7 – contact Les Grands Chais de France for stockists

Having tasted all the wines I then moved on to the food and what a feast they had prepared for us:

Murgh Malai Tikka

Lamb Sheek Kebab

Dal – Black Lentil

Kashmiri Lamb Roganjosh

Tandoori Chicken Breast

Murgh Makhni

Chicken Tikka Masala

Korma Sauce

Everything was exquisite, the flavours were delicate and enticing with the spices dancing over your taste buds and never being overpowering – exactly like good Indian food should be. I had never been there before, but it was obvious that Benares was a rather superior Indian restaurant.

The next stage was to put the food and wine together. This was slightly daunting because there were so many wines and quite a few dishes, so I decided not to wade through the lot again, but to limit myself to representative examples from among my favourites.

The main elements in the wine to take into account were oak, fruit, tannin and acidity and I did not know how they would interact with the food.

However, I had an idea that oak and tannins might be a tricky match, whereas I expected fruit and acidity to go quite well.

So, I slowly tried them all and I really do wish that I had arrived at a very simple rule that I could pass on, but I am afraid it is more complex than that.

The Dal was delicious with all the wines that I tried, whether complex and oaky or soft and fruity – as was the wonderful Kashmiri Lamb Roganjosh. It was interesting that the lamb dish was so good with all the wines, even the fine, complex and structured examples – a rare example of the protein perhaps being more important than how it is cooked.

The chicken dishes, to my mind worked much better with the lighter, fresher and fruitier wines. This was also broadly true of the Murgh Malai Tikka and Lamb Sheek Kebab, the softer wines gave a nice clean, fruity background that tasted good with those dishes, while the more complex wines jarred somewhat.

It was very interesting that the spice notes of most of the Carmenères really interacted very well with cardamom and cumin flavours in the dishes. As for oak, in my opinion the wines with less obvious oak, soft oak or well integrated oak worked very much better than the wines with a lot of obvious oak character.

Perhaps my most interesting realisation was that some of the wines that were a quite light, really came into their own with this lively food. It was as though the excitement of the cuisine rubbed off on to the wines.

I really enjoyed this tasting and with a few provisos, mainly that oaky and tannic wines seem to work better with rich, complex lamb curry than the lighter and sweeter chicken ones, I came away thinking that Carmenère and curry go very well together and give a most enjoyable combination.

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