The spice range and hints of sweetness in many South Asian dishes really can hit the high notes when paired with the right wine served at the right temperature. In the Bay Area, we have few examples of high-end Asian restaurants with extensive wine lists. Slanted Door in the Ferry Building has a great wine program. Another of my favorites is South Indian restaurant Dosa, which has two locations in The City.
Dosa has an incredible selection of wines that stand up well to heat, spice and myriad chilis. Whites, particularly those with a bit of residual sugar, are best with this type of cuisine. Big, high-alcohol reds can go to war with Southern Indian food’s flavor components. Sparkling wines from almost anywhere in the world are great choices, as are certain rosés.
NOTES FROM THE INSIDE
Todd Smith, wine director at Dosa who is also a certified sommelier for the Court of Master Sommeliers, is one of my favorite wine geeks in San Francisco. He’s down to earth, funny and superpassionate about the business. Not of Indian descent, he has spent years traveling in the Indian subcontinent, learning the fine points of the cuisine and trying to relate that back to American palates and dining styles in San Francisco.
One of my go-to guys for any wine and non-Western food pairing story, he shares a bunch of basic pairing rules: wines should be high in acidity, low in alcohol and new oak and have vibrant flavors of minerals and spice.
“Really good Indian food — which we are rarely privy to in the U.S. — pairs much better with wine [than beer],” he said, sharing my feelings exactly.
The cold temperature of a beer may seem to cool things down, “but in reality all it is doing is spreading the fire around your entire mouth,” he said.
Wines with acidity can be palate cleansers, even better than cold beer, and can “allow the diner to distinguish between the two or three dozen different ingredients in a single South Indian dish,” he added.
“Rosés have the chameleon quality of being able to be as refreshing and soothing as a white, while having some of the terrestrial complexity of reds,” Smith said. It is a choice that offers the best of both worlds to many diners.
RED IF YOU MUST
High-alcohol, tannic wines can be very difficult to pair with spicy foods. The lighter the body — and cooler temperature at which they are served — the better they tend to work with Asian food. (The whole idea of serving wines at room temperature was based on having a residence in a medieval castle. My prince has yet to build me one.)
If you chill a red for a half-hour in the fridge it should come to the table at an ideal temperature slightly under 60 degrees.
Smith advises to keep alcohol by volume levels in wine under 14.7 percent, which is fairly typical for many California zinfandels and cabernet sauvignons. I take the leap and suggest to go even lower: under 13 percent. Lean and low-alcohol reds such as Burgundies and Loire Valley and some Austrian wines would also be good pairings.
Liza B. Zimmerman has been writing, educating and consulting about wine, cocktails and food for two decades. She has also worked almost every angle of the wine and food business: from server and consultant to positions in distribution, education and sales.