CURRYING CONFUSION

BEVERAGE REPORT; Lager makes a decent partner for spicy food, but what if you would rather drink wine? Our panel of experts came to one major conclusion: when it comes to matching liquids and solids, it really is a matter of taste
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The Independent Culture
Tomorrow you have the chance to eat well in a good cause. It's National Curry Day, sponsored by Kingfisher Lager, and around 1,000 Indian restaurants nationwide will be donating 10 per cent of the day's takings to Save the Children. Charity may begin at home, but just this once you can take it out to dinner. Book! Eat! Drink!

But what to drink, apart from lager? Some cite Gewurztraminer as a "spicy" wine which can withstand the spicy attack of Indian food, others claim there's a wider choice. They point out that Indian food is highly diverse (true), that it's not all furnace-hot (ditto), and that subtleties of spicing allow for a variety of vinous accompaniments (debatable).

Seeking enlightenment, I assembled a team at Chutney Mary in London's King's Road. Chutney Mary, a participant in tomorrow's charity event, is one of the foremost purveyors of high-quality Indian food in London. The excellent wine list, chosen by manager Eddie Khoo, is a big hit with their Chelsea Wallah customers: around 65 per cent order wine.

My team included Emma Davis, who brought along eight bottles from her employers, Majestic Wines; our own food editor Michael Bateman; cookery writer Annie Bell, of The Independent; Chutney Mary owner Namita Panjabi; publicist Maureen Mills, who had arranged the evening; and IoS reader Catherine Nalty.

We conducted the tasting hedonistically rather than clinically. Emma had been to a similar tasting (reported in this month's Wine Magazine) in which everyone had to taste a dozen wines with each of five dishes. It was hard, not very enjoyable work, so I determined to make our tasting as "normal" as possible. All the bottles were open and everyone could eat and drink more or less as they saw fit. This made the event more like a real meal, even if it also made my life harder: I had to make notes of a free-flowing dinner-table conversation.

I wish I could say that everyone loved one beverage above all others. Unfortunately, the message is messier. Nearly every bottle drew at least one favourable comment, but none made a majority of tasters say: "this is it." Some tasters loved certain combinations, others loathed them. The only bottle that won no friends was the Murrieta (not to be confused with the Marietta).

Going into details about specific pairings would take us into the New Year, so I will illustrate the diverging opinions with just one example. Among our starters was a lovely dish of squid stir-fried with fresh coconut and Chettinad spices (pounds 6). Namita liked the Merlot. Catherine thought the combination "thinned out" the fruitiness of the Merlot and preferred the Austrian Chardonnay. Annie Bell loved the Latour Chardonnay - but hated it with the squid. Maureen liked our Beaujolais with another delicious dish (marinated lamb chops cooked in the tandoori oven, pounds 13), but thought it was awful with the squid. Michael liked the Champagne. Emma didn't like anything.

The final votes were no more conclusive: there were two for the Auslese (Maureen and Catherine) and one each for the Merlot (Namita) and Alsace (Emma). Annie thought it was just "too tricky", but settled on the Latour Chardonnay if one choice had to be made. Michael loved the Champagne ("as long as I'm not paying"), though a day's reflection made him see the virtues of the Cotes de Gascogne. I would oscillate between the Alsace or Auslese for a white, and between the Merlot and Marietta for a red. Now that's what I call a consensus.

Counting votes cannot convey the complexity of the preferences. Opinions wobbled at different points in the meal, and strong views (mostly favourable) were expressed at times about nearly every bottle on the table. What's more, the beers (especially the gooseberry ale) won high praise. Most tasters, with the notable exception of Annie Bell, saw the point of matching spicy dishes with a full-blooded red like the Marietta or Merlot.

Is there a conclusion here? Only in general terms. First and most important: choose wine by spice levels rather than main ingredients. A lamb dish in a mild sauce will do best with a fruity, off-dry white; spicy fish in heavier sauces will benefit from a red accompaniment. Chutney Mary's menu helpfully indicates the spiciness of each dish.

Second, try to order by the glass: this will give better matches than a single bottle for the whole meal. Chutney Mary offers eight by the glass, as well as half a dozen beers.

The third conclusion: if in doubt, stick with lager. You may not get any marriages made in heaven, but neither will you have grounds for divorce.

PUT TO THE TEST

FROM MAJESTIC WINES

2 Louis Roederer Rich (pounds 23.99), an off-dry Champagne

2 Ironstone Cabernet/Shiraz 1995 (pounds 6.49), an Australian red

2 Graacher Himmelreich Riesling QbA (pounds 3.99), one of Majestic's top-selling German wines

2 Tokay Pinot Gris Les Princes Abbes, Domaine Schlumberger 1995 (pounds 9.49), a wonderful Alsace

2 Misela de Murrieta 1993 (pounds 4.99), a white Rioja that scored badly

2 Louis Latour Grande Ardeche Chardonnay 1995 (pounds 6.99)

2 Marietta Old Vine Lot 18 (pounds 7.49), a terrific Californian red

2 Chenas, Domaine des Barroux 1995 (pounds 7.99), an impressive Beaujolais cru

FROM CHUTNEY MARY'S LIST

2 Hillstone Cabernet/Merlot McLaren Vale 1991 (pounds 19.50 at the restaurant), an Australian red

2 Chardonnay Auslese 1993, Weingut Nigl im Kremstal (pounds 19.75). This is a real oddity from Austria: a botrytis- sweet Chardonnay that is both fascinating and wonderful. Chutney Mary owns the whole UK allocation

FROM RICHARD EHRLICH

2 Domaine de la Jalousie 1995, the Cotes de Gascogne which won the prize for Best House White at the 1998 Time Out Eating & Drinking Awards

2 Samuel Cooper Ale, from Australia

2 Gooseberry Ale, made by Heather Ale in Scotland, which found much favour

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