Of all the great food and drink pairings, one of the UK's favourite in recent years has got to be curry and lager. However, despite being billed as the perfect complement to chilli and spice, Indian lager may now have found competition in its fruitier cousin, Indian wine.
India produced more than 13.5 million litres of wine last year (five times more than the UK) and although it has been making it for decades, this is the first year it has made a real splash among British oenophiles.
The white Ritu viognier 2010 and red Zampa syrah 2008 flew off the shelves when Waitrose became the first UK supermarket to stock Indian wines during a special promotion in August and the Ritu had such success that the supermarket's online arm now stocks it permanently. Indian producers had a strong visible presence at the London wine fair for the first time this year and Sula Vineyards' Sauvignon Blanc 2010, which is produced in Nashik in Maharashtra, was awarded a silver medal at the prestigious 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards.
Critics may have been quick to express a lack of enthusiasm for the newcomer and many say novelty plays a significant part in this recent success. But Indian wine also has its champions, not least in Zoltan Kore, sommelier in charge of the 150 bottle-wine list at London's Moti Mahal Indian restaurant. The list features two Indian wines – a 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from the Grover Vineyards of Nandi Hills near Bangalore, and a 2010 Shiraz from the Sula estate near the Maharashtran city of Nashik – which may not seem like many, but it's two more that the majority of UK restaurants.
"I would say 90 per cent of our guests have never tried wines from India and they are surprised that India even makes wine," says Kore. He believes that offering Indian wine adds a sense of authenticity to the restaurant and something "out of the ordinary" for guests, but insists that the main reason for carrying these two wines is that he regards them as "outstanding". "The feedback I get from our guests shows that these are impressive wines. They are entry-level in terms of price, but in terms of quality, they are untouchable," he says.
Kore recommends the refreshing, floral, crisply acidic white with fish dishes, and says the rich, cherry tones of the red perfectly complement the smoky taste of marinated meats, especially roasted lamb chops, cooked in the charcoal-fuelled tandoor oven.
He insists that neither is overpowered by spices in the food and both are easily matched with a host of different flavours, which allows them to "offer a challenge to any of the French or Italian wines".
Most vineyards in India are in Maharastra in the west, where high, hilly terrain provides a fairly stable microclimate, shelter against adverse weather conditions and exposure to cool air. This is where Sula, one of India's most established wine producers, is based. The other, Grover, is based in the Nandi Hills of the southern state of Karnataka, which are only moderately affected by monsoon rains and benefit from temperatures which usually only range between 10 and 29 degrees. Indian vineyards mostly grow French, Italian and Turkish grape varieties, which Kore says allows the soil and climate to create a taste offering "a new twist on old styles".
However, Kore concedes that not all Indian wine is as good as those he favours for his menu: "I'm not so keen on other [Indian wines]. They are really at the beginning of their journey, but there are some very promising signs." Bordeaux consultant Michel Rolland, a consultant at Grover for more than 16 years, recently said that India could produce "good but not great wine". But Alok Chandra, of Sommelier India magazine in Bangalore, says that is only because Indian wine industry is currently hampered by "low investment, federal rules and tax [up to 300 per cent in some states], and high costs". He believes the sheer volume of potential demand from India's burgeoning middle classes will ensure that that promise Kore mentions will be fulfilled. The figures back-up Chandra's argument.
Wine production in India has increased 300 per cent since 2003 and there are now 30 more wine companies than 10 years ago, offering a greater sense of competition.
"Quality is improving all the time," argues Chandra. "Indians are quick learners. Watch this space in five, 10 and 20 years from now".
Chandra is a fan of the Ritu voignier that proved so popular among British supermarket shoppers. He also recommends Luca Exotic Lychee wine, which he says is "reminiscent of a Gewurztraminer", the sweetness of which works well with spices.
Matt Smith, wine buyer at Waitrose, says that, following the success that Indian wines have seen in the UK this year, the supermarket is "keeping an eye on Indian wine producers as the industry develops". It appears he is not the only one. Indian lager can keep its title as the ultimate accompaniment for curry – for now.
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