It's National Curry Week again next month, and aficionados of Indian restaurants may be startled to find themselves being coaxed to reconsider their choice of drinks by waiters newly appointed as sommeliers. For the reflex choices of old, lager and pinot grigio, are not necessarily the best accompaniments to fine food from the subcontinent. At least, that's the belief of two competing factions who say the ideal partner is a purpose-designed wine.
Atul Kochhar, who holds a Michelin star for London's Benares, and Alex Carr Taylor, an award-winning British winemaker, have spent the past couple of years developing wines specifically for Asian food. They are now about to launch them on the trade.
"The challenge for years has been to try to match the food to the wine, but I felt a better philosophy was to match the wine to the food," explains Kochhar, who believes he has cracked the conundrum.
So do his competitors. Taylor & Shroff wines (Nainaz Shroff is Carr Taylor's Mumbai-based partner) are already listed in half a dozen Indian restaurants across the country, including Imli, sister to London's noted Tamarind. And Kochhar, whose own signature wines are sold at his own restaurants in London and Southampton, is planning a wholesale assault on the trade in the New Year.
The two product ranges, however, could not be more different. Kochhar has tweaked classic sauvignon blanc and merlot made in the Duras to make a more robust white and red which he feels can complement complex curries and stand up to the spices which conspire to overwhelm many finer and more delicate wines. The Taylor & Shroff creations, on the other hand, are barely recognisable as wine as we know it. Sure, there is a "red" and a "white" in the range, alongside the more exotic designations of cherry, apricot and ginger, but all five are sweet, fortified and designed to be drunk over ice.
In a recent tasting at Imli London, apricot was served with fish curry, and both apricot – my personal favourite – and cherry with spicy lamb dishes, while ginger was saved for the sticky, rich dessert of gulab with fig and ginger ice cream. The red and white have much less character, and as they are not fruit wines it is hard to understand their inclusion in such a distinctive and audaciously different range.
It was Nainaz Shroff who persuaded David Carr Taylor, founder of the Carr Taylor winery in Sussex, that a huge market existed in India and the UK for a style of beverage more closely related to his traditional fruit wines than the western-style wines grown for local consumption in the vineyards of Maharashtra.
"I met Nainaz on the Underground in 2006, saw she was writing a dissertation on wine, gave her my business card and offered to help her if I could," says Carr Taylor. "Two months later she came down to our vineyard, tasted our fruit wines and within weeks she had persuaded me to jump on a plane to India with her to test out her theory that our wines would find a market there. We did the rounds of bars, clubs and restaurants in 2007, and our wines were extremely well received. But I still felt there was restructuring to be done to make them absolutely right for enjoying with hot, spicy food."
Carr Taylor's son Alex, the winemaker at the family vineyard, believes his contemporaries have not so far considered the complexities of Asian food: "For centuries wines were developed to complement and enhance the style and flavours of western food, so we now have a sophisticated set of rules and beliefs regarding which wines are best paired with various foods." But a temperate climate and the social context in which westerners are used to drinking wine have also shaped those rules, he believes. "The obvious differences in climate made us acutely aware of how poorly our wines match the complex tastes and spice combinations of Indian food, in many ways the opposite of western fare. We decided to focus on adapting the wine style to the food.
"We lowered the acidity and aimed for styles with reduced tannins and fuller, more obvious fruit flavours. The alcohol level was raised to that of a fortified wine and the sweetness was increased. We learnt that Indians love to socialise in the early evenings, yet the concept of doing this with a wine in hand was alien. In their hot and often humid climate they preferred drinks that were more thirst-quenching. The simple act of adding ice to the wines we had developed made the wine cool and refreshing. As the ice melted, the high alcohol was diluted and the sweetness and fruit flavour tempered to make a delightful long drink."
Carr Taylor's strategy has captured India's heart, at least. The vineyard will dispatch 1,000 cases to the subcontinent next month and expects to export at least 5,000 cases over the coming year. Taylor & Shroff has turned over more than £500,000 in its first year of trading and it feels the time is now right to let the wines loose on the UK market.
Kochhar, however, is not impressed – at least by the cherry wine, which on tasting he pronounced "medicinal". "It was hard to think of it in terms of wine; it had a more liqueur feel," he says."All Indian restaurants have faced the same challenge – to match their food to wine in order to overcome the perception that the two don't go together," he says.
"We need wines which are a perfect marriage of acidity, tannins and fragrance." He began preparations for this gustatory wedding two years ago, working with Wickham's winemakers in the Duras to get an attractively priced white and red which he felt would do the trick.
"We have played with the tannins, sugar levels and fruitiness, and come up with wines which drink fantastically on their own. Now I think they have a place in other restaurants lucky enough to have a good manager to introduce them, because the British public is quite educated. The only reason pinot grigio is the usual culprit is that nothing more specific has been properly introduced to diners."
This may surprise those who know how well gewurztraminer,for example, complements spicy food, and not everyone agrees there is a market gap. "I'm not sure there really is a need for special wines to pair with Indian food given the wide selection out there," says Humayun Hussain, the editor of Tandoori Magazine. "There are enough good Indian restaurants with sommeliers who know how to match their dishes with good quality wine. Our wine editor had mixed feelings about the Taylor & Shroff products. But I can see why Atul Kochhar would want to develop his own wines – it's good for branding and kudos, and I'm sure he knows what is needed in a wine to match a modern Indian cuisine using British ingredients."
Let's remember, though, that the first effort to develop sauvignon blanc and merlot to pair with Indian food failed several years ago. Cobra had already entrenched themselves in thousands of Indian restaurants with their lookalike Indian-style lager, but were forced to abandon their efforts to capture the estimated 35 per cent of diners who prefer to order wine with their curries.
Curry and a pint: Has lager had its day?
Lager has been a fixture in Britain's curry houses for decades, and anyone who has eaten in India will know why.
The crisp, pale pilsners brewed in India make perfect partners for spicy food, hot breads, grilled kebabs and rich dahls.
Cobra, the British lager developed to steal the market from the classic pilsners and Indian imports which once dominated the restaurant lists, has achieved huge critical, if not commercial, success. Sold in 45 countries and as readily available in India, where it is now brewed, as domestic rival Kingfisher, it has just been named in the list of Cool Brands for 2009.
But however well it partners curry, lager is losing popularity along with other beers in Britain, and some critics think its restaurant future may be limited.
"It still has its place, but not in the sophisticated Indian restaurants which are the future for the cuisine in Britain," says Humayun Hussain, editor of Tandoori Magazine. "Lager may be popular in India, but that could be because knowledge of wines is not so great there. That's changing now that wine is being grown in India for the home market."Reuse content