Channa masala — doesn’t really scream wine-friendly, does it? Utter the words risotto ai funghi, for example, or chateaubriand, and images of bottles start dancing in your head. But channa masala? Not really.
Some of the reason for this is cultural prejudice: India isn’t a wine-producing country in the traditional sense. (It is now, but it ain’t France yet, either…) And as is the case with so many others like it — Cambodia, Russia, Ghana, etc. — most of us don’t typically associate the foods of these places with wine-pairability. A cold lager with Cambodian ka tieu is one of the great pleasures of the table, for example, but it’s a combination that most of us never really think to move beyond.
The many cuisines of India suffer the same fate: So many of the subcontinent’s emblematic dishes match so seamlessly with beer — or lassi or chai — that popping a cork alongside them isn’t the first thought to occur to people as they tear into their naan.
But even the spiciest Indian dishes have the potential to work well with wine. From champagne and prosecco to riesling and gewurztraminer, there are any number of wine-pairing options for your next Indian dinner.
But this one, this week’s unexpectedly miraculous combination, came about almost by mistake. Last Friday my goddess of a wife volunteered to take care of our 10-week-old daughter for the night, so that my friend Ryan could come over to pop a few corks and blow off some steam.
And while the bottles of pinot we opened showed beautifully–the Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve 2007 and the Penner Ash Bethel Heights Vineyard South Block 2006 bracketed the Willamette Valley’s potential for excitingly divergent stylistic expressions of the grape — it was the humble vin jaune that stole the show.
For those who haven’t tasted it before, vin jaune, the famous “yellow wine” of France’s Jura region, is the grape juice equivalent of brussels sprouts: An acquired taste that, once you fall for it, is hard to get out of your mind. It’s a delicately oxidized, nutty wonder.
This particular bottle, the Alain Labet Vin Jaune 1998 from the Cotes du Jura, had been brought back to the States in the luggage of a friend of Ryan’s. He’d already drunk most of the bottle earlier in the night, but had saved me a glass. In addition to the expected walnut-like notes, this wine also sang with a hint of something almost minty. Which, I think, was the key to its success with the channa masala he had also brought along.
The vin jaune highlighted to nuttiness of the chickpeas. The almost citric note of the coriander danced with the acid in the wine, and the spicy heat of the masala brought out a vague honeyed sweetness in the wine that was completely unapparent when sipped on its own.
More important than the success of this particular pairing, however, is what it stood for, and the lesson it embodied: Just because a dish or an entire national culinary tradition may not be associated with wine doesn’t mean that it’s not capable of some seriously rewarding pairings. You just have to be willing to think and drink outside of the tight little box of food orthodoxy that we all tend to live inside. Once you do that, the options, and surprises, are limitless.
Got a favorite wine to drink with Indian food? Let us know in the comments.
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