Opinion: Hot Stuff

Drinks: Carmenere, Wines
Other: Opinion

Last week I went along to the Chilean Curry and Carmenère tasting. Partly, I admit, because I fancied a nice feed (you can take the boy out of the north, but you can’t take the north out of the boy), but mostly because I wanted to see how the wines went with the nosh. We did a smaller food and wine-matching using curry and half a dozen Carmenères at the Cinnamon Club last year. But this was on a far bigger scale.

Organised by wines of Chile, there were 40-odd wines there, from £5 to nearer £30. From light, simple, juicy offerings to great inky monsters. Plus plates of tandoori chicken and a couple of steaming copper vats of rogan josh and CTM (Chicken Tikka Masala).

In other words, if you just wanted to get your head round Carmenère, it was as comprehensive a tasting as you could get, while the food-matching opportunity, with two great Indian staples was unrivalled.

There weren’t many sommeliers there, which was something of a shame. Though holding it on a Thursday probably didn’t help, I’d have expected the event itself to have been enough of a draw.

But two things became obvious pretty quickly.

First of all, as a general rule of thumb, Carmenère is, indeed, a good match for spicy food. We’re not talking jalfrezi heat here, but the inherent structure of the grape – fairly lush, with low tannins and a bit of coriander-like leafiness to it – is about as good a match for light- to medium-spiced Indian food as you’re likely to find.

I didn’t have time to taste all of the wines, but of the dozen or so I picked out to try with the food, there were relatively few car-crashes. Certainly, I can’t think of any other wine style or grape variety that you could put up against food like this, and expect to get such a decent hit-rate of success. Or at any rate, non-failure.

Secondly, the key to the matching, to me, seems to lie in the use of oak. For reasons that I don’t understand, the Chileans seem to think that Carmenère is vastly improved by being dumped in barrels for months on end. There were wines at the tasting costing £7 that had 18 months in American oak! What, you wonder, were the winemakers thinking? All the grape’s lovely signature lushness was buried under tonnes of wood.

The oak smokiness can work nicely with tandoori flavours. But the real problems with oak like on the finish, with the wood often creating a drying, tannic bitterness that killed any chances the wine might have had of going with the food.

For me, the most successful wines on the day were the lightest with little or no wood – certainly less than six months. On their own, they were usually simple, fairly light wines, and while they didn’t, strictly speaking, have the body to go toe-to-toe with the curry, what they did do was provide a light, fairly refreshing counterpoint that worked flavour-wise, if not weight-wise, and that didn’t come steaming through with hot, bitter tannins on the finish.

In other words, they were happy to allow the food to take centre stage while they sat in the background, like a Gilbert and Sullivan chorus. The bigger wines often started well, but the wood, tannin and alcohol usually meant a big disappointment on the finish.

The Echeverria (Hallgarten), which also did very well in the Imbibe curry and Carmenère matching, was a good match again – it had some of that nice leafiness that I personally like in Carmenère – and which definitely works with the spices in the food.  But so, too, did the Cantaluna (Patriarche), VC Family Estates (Bibendum) and Falernia (Great Western Wines).

I think the Chileans have a curry and Carmenère theme to their stand at Imbibe 2010 next month, so if you didn’t make the tasting last week, come along and give it a go. On this evidence, the grape really should be your first port of call for Indian food.

About Author

Chris Losh

After five years working on My Weekly magazine (during which time he learned how to write horoscopes and make things out of mince) in 1995 Chris Losh entered the world of drinks writing and, despite all advice from his doctor – and the wishes of most South African winemakers – has stayed there ever since. He began on Wine and Spirit International, editing it for several years before moving on to edit Wine Magazine. Both publications have since gone the way of the Dodo, but he claims to have nothing to do with their demise, and his alibi appears solid, since he was freelance writing for anyone who would pay him at the time. In 2007, he helped to set up both Imbibe magazine and the Sommelier Wine Awards, and has spent much of the last three years eating, drinking, and listening to French sommeliers talk about minerality. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Louis Roederer Feature Writer of the Year, but didn’t win. Perhaps he should have stuck to horoscopes. And mince.

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