Now that the wine boom seems well and truly underway in India, I am inundated with questions about how to tell whether a wine is good, what it means to be a New World wine, whether wine goes with Indian food, and so on.
I have answered at least some of these questions before. But clearly there is a whole new generation of wine drinkers that has not seen those columns. So, in response to public demand (how grand that sounds!), here are answers to some of the questions I am asked most often about wine.
Can you judge a wine by its grape variety?
Only upto a point. Some of the world’s best wines are made from Cabernet Sauvignon for instance. But then, so is a lot of rubbish. A grape variety is like a meat, a fowl or a fish. You can make great dishes from chicken and you can also make terrible dishes.
So, what is the point of mentioning the grape variety or ordering a wine by the name of the grape as in “I’d like a glass of Chardonnay, please?”
Well, it serves as a rough guide. All chicken dishes, for instance, no matter how good or bad, will have something in common. So all Chardonnays will share some essential characteristics. But basically, it is pretty silly to demand a wine made from a particular grape without knowing which wine it actually is. The grape alone is no indication of quality. You wouldn’t go into a restaurant, not look at the menu, and say “I’ll have some chicken”. You’d want to know little bit more about the dish. So it is with wine.
Why do some wine bottles make no mention of the grape variety?
In essence, this is the difference between two philosophies. In the Old World (i.e. Europe, but mainly France), they incline to the view that the most important determinant of the quality of a wine is the region where it is grown. Thus French wines are not usually divided by Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon or whatever.
They are labelled according to the region they come from: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Loire etc. The better the wine, the more specific the regional identification. A good Bordeaux may be labelled Médoc; an even better one could be identified by the village or town it came from, say Pauillac.
In the New World (Chile, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand but mostly, America), they are content with very broad regional classifications. For them, the grapes are the important thing.
What makes more sense: region or grape variety?
It all depends. The French are keen on a term called terroir, which means the soil, the micro-climate etc. of the vineyard where the grapes are grown. In Burgundy for instance, they laugh at you for emphasising that their red wines are mostly Pinot Noir, while the whites are Chardonnay. They treat the grapes as no more than a way to express the characteristics of the terroir.
This sounds like pretentious twaddle until you taste the wines. With the same grape variety and roughly the same wine-making methods, the wines of Burgundy can vary dramatically every five miles or so. Chablis and Meursault, for instance both use Chardonnay and are only a short drive from each other, and yet, the wines are completely different.
On the other hand, American wine makers have proved that even if they use grapes that they have outsourced from other farmers, they can make outstanding wines that often beat French wines at blind tastings. Americans, therefore, sometimes call the French terroirists!
So there are no hard and fast rules.
Is a chateau bottled wine necessarily a good one?
No. The term is meaningless. You can build a farmhouse in Gurgaon and make your own wine and call it Chateaux Tollfree. Nobody will object. And the name is no guarantee of quality.
The whole chateaux-culture comes from Bordeaux where the best vineyards had châteaux attached to them from which they took their names. In 1855, the wines of one half of Bordeaux were classified according to price and ranked as First Growths, Second Growths etc. The term was not meant to refer to quality (which was subjective) but to price.
Today, the First Growths are all outstanding (and hugely expensive) but the rest of the classification is outdated. Some Second Growths are as good as First Growths and some deserve to be ranked much lower on current form.
But even crap Bordeaux wine now takes on the names of unknown chateaux in the hope of fooling the gullible.
I have heard wines described as having ‘90 points’ or even as ‘100 points’. What does this mean?
The point system was popularised by the massively influential wine writer Robert Parker who ranked wines on the subjective impressions of his own palate using the American school marking system, where you get 50 out of 100 for just showing up. Parker’s scores are still the most important factor in determining the prices of some wines and the Wine Spectator magazine comes second, with a similar marking system.
These scores reflect Parker’s (with the Wine Spectator following his lead) own preference for concentrated wines in the California mould. Elegance is not a virtue he seems to prize, which is why he has no influence in say, Burgundy.
If a wine has got more than 95 from Parker, it is usually very good. But many excellent wines that do not appeal to the great man’s palate get lower scores. So do not take the point system too seriously, unless you love wines that are overpowering fruit bombs.
Is Indian wine worth drinking?
Yes. Some of it is very good. I drink the Fratelli Sette red wine at home all the time. The sparkling Chenin Blanc made by Moët in Maharashtra and called Chandon is also very drinkable.
But there is a lot of poor quality stuff out there as well so tread carefully.
Why can’t we make Champagne in India?
It depends on what you call Champagne. The French insist that only a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region can be called Champagne. But lots of people (including the French!) make perfectly good sparkling wine in other countries: America, Australia, and even India, using the same method though not necessarily the same grapes. In fact 90 per cent of the world’s sparkling wine comes from outside Champagne.
What is a Super Tuscan and why is it such a big deal?
No, a Super Tuscan is not an Italian super hero who delivers pizza. Super Tuscans are Italian wines that use non-traditional (i.e. usually French) grapes to make French-style wines that are alien to their own tradition. Some Super Tuscans are wonderful but the wheel has turned full circle, with Italians now focussing on traditional grape varieties, and traditional wines.
Why is wine so expensive?
Well it can’t cost the same as Coke, making wine is a long and complex process. But many Indian hotels overprice their wines. They import them duty free and do not always pass on the savings to guests.
When they pour the wine for me to taste, is it okay to send it back if I don’t like it?
No. It is not. You are only being asked to check if the wine is spoiled. In the West, the ritual is meaningless because at good restaurants, wine is properly stored and often, the sommelier has tasted it before bringing it to the table to check that it is oaky.
In the 1960s, at the New York restaurant Le Pavillion, whenever some vulgarian sent back a perfectly good bottle of wine, the owner Henri Soule, the sommelier and the maitre’d would embarrass him by gathering around his table, trying the wine and declaring that it was perfect: “But if Monsieur is not happy, we will change it...”
In India, many many white wines (Burgundy in particular) are sold in poor condition by importers. I’ve had more spoilt bottles here than anywhere else in the world. Worse still, most sommeliers here either can’t or won’t tell the difference between a wine that is spoilt or one in good condition.
So, if you really think the wine tastes off – and are not just trying to impress your girlfriend – then send it back.
That is your right as a customer.
From HT Brunch, August 1o
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