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Jan 18, 2011
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Wine With . . . Baked Chicken Curry

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

In her book At Home with Madhur Jaffrey, the renowned Indian food writer relates that her own cooking has become simplified over the years.  “I now try to reach real Indian tastes by using simpler methods and fewer steps,” she writes.  One example of Jaffrey’s “at home cooking” is her decision sometimes to bypass the traditional step of browning seasonings and meats in oil.  “I find that if I just marinate the meat with all the spices and seasonings and then bake it . . . the browning happens on its own; the curry absorbs the spices and is delicious,” she says.  Of course it takes time for this absorption process to occur, as Nigella Lawson, another well-known culinary personality, points out:  “One ease-making factor to be borne in mind is that not only can [curries] be made in advance, they need to be; only if you let them steep in their pan, overnight in the fridge, do they have the full resonance of depth and flavor.”  Embracing these two concepts--no pre-browning of ingredients, plus a long overnight marinade--we recently prepared a baked curried chicken dish.  Its flavorsome results did indeed reflect the “full resonance of depth and flavor” described by Lawson.  

When choosing wines to pair with this baked curry, our goal was to test the epicurean cliché that the only drinks that can be paired successfully with spicy curried dishes are beer and other bubbly beverages, or white wines with a decidedly sweet edge. The four people involved in the tasting definitely found dry wines that we liked, but we did not necessarily agree on the specifics, with some of us preferring reds and others whites,  Had we made a beef or lamb curry, the results would undoubtedly have favored red wines. By the same token, if chicken breast had been used instead of the more assertively flavored dark meat of legs and thighs, white wines likely have been the favorites.  We also did not serve any chutneys, as they would have skewed the impact of the wines with the curry.  If you make this dish in your home, however, you should feel free to experiment with various accompaniments.

Baked Chicken Curry  

Serves six:

About 5 pounds chicken drumsticks or boneless, skinless thighs, or a combination of both

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup unflavored yogurt

2 tablespoons finely minced or grated fresh ginger

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon ground coriander

3 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/3 teaspoon cayenne

1 small onion, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

Place the chicken in a baking dish large enough to hold the pieces in a single layer.  In a bowl, combine all the remaining ingredients except the onion and the olive oil.  Spread half the mixture over the chicken pieces; then turn them over and baste with the remaining half.  Cover tightly and place in the refrigerator overnight. 

Preheat the oven to 375°.  Turn the pieces of chicken over and sprinkle the minced onion over them.  Bake for about 30 minutes, covered, and then remove from the oven.  Using tongs, turn the pieces of chicken over again, baste them with the cooking juices, and drizzle the olive oil over them.  Return the pan to the oven and continue baking, uncovered, for another 30-40 minutes, or until the chicken has cooked through and is lightly browned.

Serve with plain white or brown rice.

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While we found that red and white wines worked equally well with this spicy Indian-inspired dish, not all the wines we tried were successful partners.  Some, particularly fairly light-bodied whites, lost character when dealing with the curry and so tasted wishy-washy.  This was true even with off-dry examples, a German Riesling for example.  The sweetness in these wines provided an attractive counterpoint to the spice, but the wines themselves were not substantial enough to make the match work.  At the same time, many reds, particularly those with notable tannin, seemed clunky and cumbersome.  While they were not overpowered by the spice, they dominated the pairing to such an extreme extent that heat was the only thing we tasted. 

The wines that worked best occupied a middle ground between these extremes.  They had fruity, almost juicy personalities, and served much the same function as chutney does with curry, providing succulent solace.  We’re recommending three reds and two whites, but with this pairing color turns out to be much less important than style.  Lush, ripe fruit flavor is the key.



Approx. Price





Bogle, California Petite Sirah 2008








Bogle’s value-priced Petite Sirah has helped inspire renewed consumer interest in this California varietal, in part because unlike more supposedly “serious” renditions, it tastes smooth and succulent rather than brawny or muscular.  Those qualities are precisely what made it work well with this dish, as bright fruit rather than forceful tannin came to the fore. 



Cantele, Salento (Italy) Primitivo IGT 2008

(Imported by Vias Imports Ltd.)





Fresh red berry fruit enhanced by echoes of briary spice distinguished this supple wine.  Unlike a more powerful California Zinfandel, it did not seem hot or overbearing, but instead allowed the flavors of the dish to have their say. 



Cent’Are, Sicilia (Italy) Nero d’Avola IGT 2006

(Imported by Wine Wave)





Fully mature but not dry or pasty, this dark red tasted surprisingly lively.  As with all the reds we’re recommending, it seemed juicy, with a hint of sweet spice augmenting its primary fresh fruit flavors.



Mendel, Mendoza (Argentina) Semillon 2010

(Imported by Vine Connections)






Very bright and fresh, with a fleshy texture and a succulent bouquet, this wine tasted of citrus and tropical fruits, with hints of honey and coconut in the finish.  It had more than enough heft to hold its own with the chicken, while at the same time being lively and vivacious.


Elena Walch, Alto Adige (Italy) Pinot Bianco 2009

(Imported by The Country Vintner)




A rich white, with echoes of honeysuckle and other flowers in the bouquet, this wine tasted of apple and pear fruit with a hint of vanilla in the finish.  It seemed substantial but in no sense heavy, so proved refreshing, especially given the spice in the curry.