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Don't Fear Spicy Indian Flavors

How to narrow the wine choices when food zings the palate
Varying levels of heat for this dosa can challenge wine, but a soft blend of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc works well.
Photo by: Courtesy of Dosa
Varying levels of heat for this dosa can challenge wine, but a soft blend of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc works well.

Posted: Apr 21, 2015 3:23pm ET

Spices and chiles won't kill your wine, says Todd Smith, sommelier for Dosa, the outstanding southern Indian restaurants in San Francisco. But it helps to know why some wines perform best, as he demonstrated with wines made specially for Dosa.

Smith met me at the bar at Dosa Fillmore. His jaunty deep-purple narrow-brim fedora and gauged ears make him look more hipster than no-nonsense wine maven, but he understands the cuisine well and how wine works with it. He's been with Dosa since it opened in 2006 (and Mark Bright, now co-owner of Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Saison, compiled the first lists). An avid cook, Smith pestered the chefs to learn what went into the food.

His wine list numbers slightly more than 100, ranging from a creamy Greek Assyrtiko to spicy Argentine Malbecs and a complex, aristocratic Italian Brunello. He seeks out small-scale wineries in Northern California for the list, and to make the wines for the restaurant's private label, named Sujātā. These wines strike me as clean, supple and generous in a deft frame.

So I put the Sujātā wines to the test. How would they perform with signature dishes?

We started with Chennai Chicken, cumin- and coriander-seasoned strips fried crisp, served with a yogurt dipping sauce; on another plate, Dahi Vida, lentil fritters topped with yogurt drizzled with tamarind and mint sauces. The burn is not intense.

The white blend, from the problematic 2011 vintage, wraps peach, pear and floral flavors around the spices, underlining without losing its own character. It remains refreshing, made with Riesling from Santa Lucia Highlands with Sauvignon Blanc from San Benito County.

A dosa, a thin platter-sized crêpe, comes with mixtures of various spice levels to fill it. The big challenge for wine is not the mildly spiced potato but sambar, a thick, spicy soup hot with chiles for dipping each bite.

"You have 38 different ingredients in one cup," Smith said. "The sauce is what affects the wine. I don't pair with the protein."

A rosé of Corvina grown in Lodi and Sangiovese in foothills near Yosemite National Park wafts delicate watermelon and pomegranate flavors and finishes dry but not steely. It's catnip for the gentle flavors of the yogurt dish, but the spicy sauces with the dosa create a loud, peppery cymbal crash on the tongue. The white blend is unfazed.

Dry wines will give you that clang of pepper, Smith explained, but lightly sweet wines such as demi-sec Chenin Blanc and off-dry German Rieslings soothe next to spicy food. 

We tried the red, a 2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with an uttapam, a thicker pancake rolled with spicy ground lamb. The rich lamb highlights the 2011 red's gentle cherry flavors. The sambar brings out its soft, fuzzy tannins.

Bottom line: With Indian food of this caliber, try clean wines with their own character and enough generosity to stand up to the bright flavors. Bigger flavors deserve bigger wines, but watch out for tannins, which bring out bitter flavors in hot spices.

Fruit is always welcome. And a good guide doesn't hurt.

Carlos M G Ribeiro
São Paulo Brasil  —  April 23, 2015 9:21am ET
I have tried with some Indian and Thai dishes the gewurztraminer that, with it's peculiar and sweet touch, goes very well with spicy and flavored foods.
Stindar Lal
Courtice, Ontario, Canada —  April 23, 2015 11:36am ET
Mr. Steiman I found your article most interesting and informative. As a person with roots in India I have often faced the question of the best type of wine to pair with Indian food. Your article is helpful in that regard. However most of the dishes that you refer to hail from South India and as would probably be aware there is a significant difference between South Indian cuisine and North Indian cuisine. The cuisine in North India is much more focused on meat dishes particularly on lamb and chicken. While spices are also used in that cuisine they are milder and not as strong. Coconut or coconut milk is hardly ever used in North Indian cooking while it is quite commonly used in the South. I would be particularly interested in finding out if there are suitable red wines for that cuisine. Perhaps you would consider emulating a similar experience with restaurants that focus on North Indian dishes. Many thanks for opening a new horizon of wine and food pairing.
Glenn E Sudnick
Stuart, Florida —  April 23, 2015 12:34pm ET
Hands down, the pleasing aroma of pineapple, guava and citrus with hints of mango, banana, white flowers and minerals. The palate follows through with the nose. Break away from Chardonnay and Sauvignon and enjoy an Albarino with this Choice of entree.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 23, 2015 1:20pm ET
You're right, Stindar, Dosa is a South Indian restaurant. I didn't make a point of that because I think the way wines work with various types of spices holds true regardless of region (or country). As Todd says, it's not necessarily the meat but the dominant flavors of the sauces and seasonings that make wine work.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  April 23, 2015 1:24pm ET
Albariño is indeed one of the wines of Todd's list. I like the choice for its restrained flavors and open texture. Very similar to the Riesling-Sauvignon Blanc blend in structure.

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