Wine with curry: sugar makes spice twice as nice

Victoria Moore reveals the best wines to go with curry whether to accentuate, or tone down a spicy chilli dish and ensure the flavour isn't lost.

Lamb vindaloo with herbs and shallots on a plate

The dish was the hottest curry in the world (allegedly). My great friend and wine expert Joe Wadsack was surrounded by waiters, preparing to eat it all while being flmed. He made it, and then, ‘AAAAAAAAGH MUUUUUUUM.’ ‘Would you like a drink, Sir?’ asked the waiters, politely. ‘Yes, get me an AAAAAGH lassi AAAAAAGH.’ ‘What flavour would you like, Sir? We’ve got mango, lime...’ At which point Joe bolted to the fridge, grabbed a pot of yogurt and tipped it into his burning mouth.

If you’re picking a drink to go with curry, the first question is: what do you want the drink to do?

Milk and yogurt-based drinks can soothe the fire that chilli lights in your mouth. Pick a red wine, on the other hand, especially one with big tannins, and the effect is to ramp up the heat. Yes, if you really want to feel that burn, chilli freaks, then go for a spiky Chianti Classico, a brooding young Australian shiraz, or rustic Portuguese red and bring on the aggravation.

Indians, if they are drinking wine with spicy food, often choose red. I was surprised to learn when interviewing an Indian sommelier that this is less to do with a greater tolerance for heat, and more that when this food is eaten in a traditional setting, carbs play a bigger part in the dinner, diluting the effect of the chilli.

Sea bass fillet with curry sauce and tomatoes on a plate

In terms of flavour, the warmth of red does marry well with spices. However, a problem with chilli is that its prickly heat changes the way we taste the wine. Sip your wine after a mouthful of curry and it can taste dead, as if the fruit has been stripped out of it. There are two (or three) ways around this: go sweet, or go fizzy (or do both). Sugar is the magic ingredient that allows the wine to remain bouncy and fruity as you sip it in between mouthfuls. I’m talking off-dry or medium-dry, here, not dessert-wine-sticky. Off-dry rosé works particularly well – and you won’t taste the sweetness when you’re eating anything hot.

As any lager drinker or G&T aficionado knows, drinks that fizz also hold up well against spicy food. Those tiny stings you feel when the bubbles burst on your tongue aren’t actually bubbles bursting, it’s an interaction between the carbonated water and our pain receptors – the same pain receptors with which we sense the burn of wasabi, garlic and cinnamon.

One of my favourite curry drinks is the wine you get when you put these two thoughts together: Mateus Rosé from Portugal (£5, Tesco). Yes, it’s the wine whose flask-shaped bottle has held a thousand cheap lampshades. A weirdly retro choice, but one that really works. The wine is pink; has a bit of sweetness; a gentle, spritzing, uplifting, effervescence – and it’s cheap. What more could you ask? 

What to drink with...

Our sea bass curry recipe: Victoria recommends a Finest SR sauvignon/riesling 2016, Australia (£8, Tesco). This white wine has an almost sherbetty lime and lemon flavour. It’s not perfectly dry which makes it a good match for the spicy fish.

For more frangrant curry dishes, check out our curry recipe collection.

Read more about wine...

Red wine: To chill or not to chill?
What wines to drink with a barbecue
How to match wine with food


Victoria Moore is an award-winning wine columnist and author. Her new book, The Wine Dine Dictionary (£20, Granta), is out now.

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