Long before Ant and Dec came up with the idea of subjecting minor celebrities to the indignity of eating witchetty grubs in the Australian jungle, a friend of mine invented something called The Vindaloo Challenge. The game is easy, if extremely sweaty, to play. Six of you order the hottest curry on the menu, place an ice bucket full of beer in the middle of the table and start eating. The first person to reaching for the Kingfisher pays for the meal.
In all the times I’ve taken the challenge, I’ve never drunk wine. When you’re faced with something that’s really hot and spicy, beer (or just plain water) is a better match. You could try a light, chilled red or an medium-dry white, but it wouldn’t be as tempting, or as satisfying, as a cold lager. It’s no coincidence that few of the UK’s 8,000 odd curry restaurants and balti houses specialise in wine.
Chilli is one of only a small number of dangerous ingredients for wine lovers. It’s a short list that includes oysters, artichokes, smoked, oily fish, vinegar, cream (when there’s too much of it) and chocolate. Other than that, you can drink pretty much what you want, as long as you use your common sense.
The first and most useful thing to remember about food and wine matching is that there are no strict rules. If you need a few pointers, there’s a lot of good advice in master sommelier Evan Goldstein’s new book, “Daring Pairings”(University of California Press), including a cheat sheet and a list of “magic ingredients”, such as cured meets, cheese, mushrooms and olives. But don’t be afraid to try unusual combinations for yourself. After all, the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll have to open a bottle of something else.
Over the years, I’ve developed half a dozen guidelines of my own. These are as follows: combine wines and dishes from the same region; match wine to the strongest flavour on the plate, which may be the sauce; acidity and salt in food make wines taste softer, especially if they’re tannic reds; really spicy food works best with medium sweet whites, but gentler spices are fine with unoaked reds; gutsy food likes gutsy wines; and, last of all, sweet food needs sweet wines, preferably with comparatively low levels of acidity.
And what about those tricky ingredients? Well, choose carefully and you can find a wine to complement every single one of them, with the possible exception of artichokes, which contain a compound (cynarin) that makes anything you drink with it taste curiously sweet, and excessive amounts of vinegar.
It’s only my opinion, but I think oysters work best with champagne and chablis, smoked fish with pinot grigio, creamy dishes with fresh, tangy, unoaked whites like vermentino and muscadet, and chocolate with rich, sweet, flavour-packed fortified wines. Depending on its colour and level of bitterness, try tawny port, maury, rutherglen muscat or px sherry.
But even here, feel free to pour what you want. The true joy of food and wine matching lies in serendipity, not in repeating classic combinations like foie gras and sauternes or claret and stilton. Head off piste and you never know what you might find. If any of you discover a wine that works with a vindaloo, let me know.
2009 Paul Mas Vermentino, Pays d’Oc (£5.99 each for two, 13%, Majestic)
A dry, stony, green olive and pear-scented white from the Languedoc with a creamy texture and a mouth-watering finish.
2008 Tesco Finest Autumn Pick Riesling, Highfield Estate (£6.69, 8.5%, down to £5.02 each in store for six until October 5th)
A Kiwi take on a German Kabinett-style Riesling: light-bodied and medium sweet with apple and apricot notes and refreshing acidity.
2009 Marks & Spencer Petit Chablis, La Chablisienne (£8.99, 12.5%)
When it’s this good, Petit Chablis outperforms its lowly status. This unoaked chardonnay is dry and chalky with a tangy, citrus fruit bite.
Sainsbury’s 10-year-old Tawny Port (£13.07, 20%)
A great match with white chocolate, this is sweet and savoury with a nip of tannin and harmonious fig and dried fruits flavours.
2009 Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia, Epanomi (£12.49, 12.5%, Laithwaites, www.laithwaites.co.uk)
Made from the malagousia grape, this modern Greek white is floral and stylish with flavours of orange peel and white peach. Great with lightly spiced food.
Maury Solera 1928, Cask Number 849 (£16, 17%, The Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.comA wine made for dark chocolate: a very sweet, venerable, sherry-like, barrel-aged blend of grenache noir, grenache gris and carignan.
Originally published in The Times