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Wine Secrets Uncorked

The practice of up-selling wines – that is, of restaurants pressuring you to buy more expensive wines than you had originally intended to drink – and cheating guests on wine pricing From the right taste to the right price, has become rather common. So, Vir Sanghvi has the answers to the most frequently asked questions about wine.

brunch Updated: Jun 25, 2011 17:58 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

I wrote some weeks ago about the practice of up-selling wines – that is, of restaurants pressuring you to buy more expensive wines than you had originally intended to drink – and cheating guests on wine pricing.

So great has the flood of responses to that piece been that I decided not to answer all the questions I was asked individually but to combine them into a single piece. Here are answers to the most-frequently asked questions.

When ordering a wine should I care about the grape?
Well, yes and no. The grape is one of the most important constituents of a wine and each grape has distinguishing characteristics: the inkiness of Cabernet Sauvignon; the fleshiness of Merlot; the silkiness of Pinot Noir; etc.

But the emphasis on grapes is a relatively recent phenomenon encouraged by wine-makers from the New World. In France, they don’t like naming the grape variety on the bottle. They take the line that wine is an expression of terroir. In Burgundy, for instance, they say that Pinot Noir was first selected thousands of years ago by the Romans because it best absorbed the influences of the soil, the weather and the barrel. In that sense, the grape is no more than a translation of the soil.

Each grape has distinguishing characteristics: for example, the fleshiness of Merlot

This sounds like bunk but you have to only travel from village to village in Burgundy to discover how the same grape (Chardonnay or Pinot Noir) yields completely different wines in vineyards that are only a few miles away.

My own view is that grapes matter in the case of New World wines but can be an irrelevance in France or Italy.

How important is the vintage?

It can be very important. The same vineyard can yield great wines and mediocre wines, depending on the year. On the other hand, vintage matters less and less in warm weather countries and in places where wine is an industrial product (some American, Australian and South American wines fall in this category). The general rule is that cold weather countries (France, for instance) produce wines that vary more from year to year than warm weather areas (California).

Where vintage does make a difference, however, is price. If you are ordering a 1995 Bordeaux and they give you a 2009, then you have a right to complain. Some vintages are more expensive than others and frequently restaurants will charge you for an expensive vintage and then substitute a cheaper one.

Also remember that some wines, red Bordeaux for instance, take at least five years to show their hand and should not be ordered when they are young.

Should I return a bottle of wine?
Not if you just don’t like it. If you ordered it, you are obliged to pay for it unless the wine is spoilt.

But spoilage occurs frequently because of poor storage and other factors. There was a time when it was impossible to order white Burgundy in India because the spoilage factor was 50 per cent. In those cases, always send the wine back. It may take you a while to be able to detect a wine that is corked or spoilt but once you have some experience, it is easy enough. Your nose will tell you when a wine smells like moist cardboard and is corked.

Do waiters take bottles back? It varies. Last month I had a bottle of an obviously corked, very expensive wine at Beaumaniere, the most famous restaurant in Provence. Though my host was from the wine trade and knew what he was talking about, the sommelier said the wine was fine and charged us for it anyway. If it can happen at Beaumaniere, it can happen anywhere.

Do restaurants charge too much for wine?
In a word; yes. Any hotel or restaurant with foreign exchange earnings can order wine free of customs duty. But state taxes can be ridiculously high. Even so, hotels levy absurd mark-ups. One way of checking is to compare the price of a wine at a five-star hotel which has imported it duty-free with the price of the same wine at a stand-alone that does not get duty exemption. In almost every case, the wine will be cheaper at the stand-alone even though the restaurant has paid more to buy it.

Years ago, when I was editor of the HT, we ran a campaign in HT City (then edited by Sourish Bhattacharya) examining how much difference there was in the price of the same wine depending on where you drank it. I am pretty sure that were we to conduct the same exercise again, the results would be the same.

How do I know that I am getting good value for my wine at a restaurant?

Well, frankly, unless you are part of the wine trade, you don’t. But some general rules may help. The mark-ups on expensive wines are lower than the mark-ups on cheap wines. So, in the case of wine at least, more is less.

The so-called house wine – the one they offer to sell you by the glass – can be dire at many restaurants. They choose wines that they can buy cheap and often they open the bottle many days in advance, store it badly and serve you the wine when it is spoilt. So be careful about ordering wine by the glass.

Hotel wine lists contain many expensive wines from Bordeaux that nobody orders (Petrus, Lafite, etc.) but rarely feature good, drinkable wines

Remember that in the Indian market at least, California is over-priced and Bordeaux prices can be a joke. Hotel wine lists contain many expensive wines from Bordeaux that nobody orders (Petrus, Lafite, etc.) but rarely feature good, drinkable wines. Instead, they rely on meaningless brand names (the Rothschild brand means nothing unless you are drinking a first growth).

The best value in cheap wines is Chile. For middle range wines, it is Australia or New Zealand. And for expensive wines, it is Italy or Burgundy.

Should I order Indian wine?

Oh dear, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that. I was an early champion of Indian wines and now that there is a wine boom in the country, I should be more encouraging.

But here’s my problem. I find a complete lack of consistency in most Indian wines. The great brands tend to bottle rubbish. The ‘champagne’ tastes like cat’s piss. And there is more hype than quality.

That said, I’ve drunk some very good Indian wines and I am told that things are getting better. As of now, however, I am still not confident enough to make blanket recommendations. Besides, Indian wine is not particularly cheap, at least on restaurant menus. Either the quality improves or the price comes down before I start recommending it.

I love wine. But can I get it at home?

Only with some difficulty. In theory, you can buy wine at shops in our big cities. But the range is not great and in my limited experience, I have found that the wine is not always stored properly and can be spoilt as a consequence.

And yet, if wine drinking is to take off in India then we should be able to drink good wine at home. My friend, Dharti Desai of Fine Wines and More, is that rare phenomenon: a wine merchant who pays as much attention to the retail market as she does to the restaurant sector. Fine Wines and More has some innovative wine-selling ideas (including a hugely successful service for American Express card-holders).

But despite the excellence of many of the wines on offer, the sector is young, the laws are complicated, excise officials are corrupt, retail spaces are limited and it will be a while before you and I can wander into a shop and buy the sorts of wines we can order at restaurants.

- From HT Brunch, June 26

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First Published: Jun 24, 2011 13:41 IST