Durban - Wine with curry? Difficult. Beer with curry, much easier. With double brandy and coke? Very rowdy.
The beauty of a curry, in a posey wine world, is its “unsacramental” relationship to drink.
We can keep things amiably reckless. You should not open your finest expensive wines for curry.
Even molecular sommeliers - the foamy folks pairing molecules in wine and food - throw up their hands.
One of the iron laws of drinks and curry - ice cold - needn’t apply either, though in Durban’s gloriously warm climate it obviously does.
First considerations are the main ingredients. Anything from crab to beans to mutton, they present a kaleidoscopic array of flavours, each suggesting a different wine. But more than in most cuisines, curry layers these under and over an even greater array of delicious, spicy emulsions.
Imperiously different to or dominant over liquid refreshments.
Sambals, chutney, poppadoms, rotis, onion and tumeric-infused rice add to the organised chaos.
And that’s before the chilli-heat magnification bit, where mild to hot is a slippery variable on an often vertiginous gradient.
There’s the rub - the capsaicin in the chillies - the heart rate booster that alerts the endorphins and brings the feel-good sweats. Which is why we love curry and perhaps why many endow it with aphrodisiac powers and are happy to beat the price of what we all know afterwards.
In this mê* ée, alcohol is a finishing turbo-charger. It intensifies chilli and spice effects.
What can a delicate little low- alcohol pinot gris (grigio) offer in this riot? Not much more than distant piped music squeak. Who would subject a fine old claret - or any great wine - to such explosive treatment?
This is no reason to give up, though:
Sparkies, preferably Methode Cap Classique (MCC) are less bloating than beer. Both white and pink, dry and even slightly off-dry, are fairly fail-safe choices - served icy.
They’re lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than most wines. Here we can include Italian prosecco, the fainter sparkies in Portuguese vinho verdes, and some better “perlé” Cape whites. All partner fiery peri-peri well.
A touch of sweetness in wines is a bit like fighting fire with fire - an off-dry chenin, for example, handles the tomato-and-onion based sauces of classic Durban curry well. It tones down chilli, and complements sweet crab and prawn meat, as well as taking on accompaniments like banana sambals and chutneys.
Good rieslings have superb, direct, penetrating fruity freshness: think fish and other seafood, veg and paneer curries. If your curry features tamarind, however, beware. A good riesling will take care of its bitter sweetness, but tamarind brutalises most fragile whites and elegant reds. Go for a more robust white.
Viognier’s ripe-peach-and apricot nuances and its innate palate weight is usually up for a match with shellfish curries. Viognier blends, too. A subtly-wooded chardonnay (a rare beast) is fine if your curry is only mildly hot, but again it is no match for tamarind.
A well-padded (not too thin and acid) sauvignon blanc, one which combines steely flintiness with generous fruity gooseberry is perhaps a safer all-rounder.
Rosé, dry. And berry-fresh, preferably made from slightly more muscular, tanniny cabernet or cabernet Franc, is a handy curry all-rounder. Chilled.
Pinotage, light and young and fresh, is another option, its punchy fruitiness not easily bowing to a rich mutton curry.
A spicy, peppery shiraz keeps up with a lamb or mutton curry.
Pinot noir’s relative delicacy perhaps shouldn’t ordinarily be subjected to an oily cauldron of chilli-fire, but it’s perfumed aromas and ripe berry flavours work well with chicken dishes.
* Platter shared this edited extract from Durban Curry, co-authored with Clinton Friedman and on sale at Exclusive Books.