Blackcurrent undertones

ByPratik Kanjilal
Dec 31, 2011 12:37 AM IST

The Centre may cut duty on wines. Cheers to that splendid thought! Pratik Kanjilal writes.

It's New Year's Eve and Saturday besides, so name your poison. You're probably a beer or whiskey person. Indians prefer golden-hued stimulants. Votaries of wine, rum, vodka, gin and rocket fuel constitute only a quarter of the urban drinking population.

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HT Image

Now say when. Take your time. Here in India, it's all right to drink deep with the declared objective of getting tight. Our western friends find this odd but we don't care. Let them value the process - the paraphernalia of champagne flutes and balloon glasses, the expressive art of toasting, the fickle politics of wine-tasting. We go directly for the product - a tingling buzz between the ears.

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Such is the noble simplicity of the subtropical savage. But now, our government is out to civilise us. It wants to teach us to drink discerningly and temperately. The Prime Minister's Office strongly backs a proposal to slash the import duty on quality wines and liquors. It's extraordinary - Manmohan Singh's favourite drink is still water.

The politics of commerce is behind this. For decades, wine has been a sticking point in Indo-European trade relations. Our peculiar excise laws require alcoholic beverages to be bottled domestically to avoid being charged massive duties. And then they have to stick a fiddly little foil label on the cap which transfers itself to your person when you open the bottle. It stays with you long after the party's over.

Fiddly foil does not work for wine, which must be bottled in the vineyard and imported whole. This is why even plonk is prohibitively expensive in India, and this is killing the market. Once, the trade commissioner of a wine-proud European country had bitterly asked me, "You expect me to be your trading partner but you will not let me sell my vins in your country? My vins, dammit!" I said it wasn't my fault, but he still glared at me in hurt and outrage, as if I had insulted his mother.

Later, in a Chianti vineyard, I understood how touchy wine is for the European. To my disbelief, my host said that he had been wined from the age of three: "First a little wine in my water, then a little water in my wine, and then just wine." To him, it was like mother's milk. Now that the penny has dropped in the PMO, we're going to get a drop of goodness, too.

But there's a steep learning curve ahead. We must learn the refined arcanology of alcohol - the exquisite mumbo-jumbo of woodiness and peatiness, the mysteries of oak and anise, the difference between the dryness of deserts and the dryness of vermouth.

While government officials announcing the proposed duty cut predicted the imminent arrival of "high-end" (Ouch!) French wines and Scotch (What, again?), the world of fine drink holds much more. There are the brave new wines from the Americas, South Africa and Australia which can eclipse even Frescobaldis and Barbarescos. And grappas, limoncellos and ouzos effortlessly distract from the glory of Scotch.

So much to learn, so little time. Noble savage, enjoy yourself this evening. By this day next year, you may have deserted old flames like Scotch and find yourself nursing a delicate little glass of jenever.

(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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