The Taste with Vir: Questions people ask me about wine
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi answers questions about wine which people ask him.Updated: Sep 26, 2019, 13:58 IST
Frankly I did not expect so many of you to like last week’s The Taste on pairing Indian food and wine. Nor was I prepared for the avalanche of questions about wine that followed. So here are some answers to questions that people have asked. I have answered many of them before over the years, but here goes again, anyway!
Q: Should I choose a wine by grape variety or by country?
A: There is no simple answer to this one. Some countries (basically those with a long wine tradition) use place names. Others focus on the grape variety.
The advantage with going with grape variety is (in theory) that you know exactly what you are getting.
The disadvantage is that you really don’t.
Grape variety can be an unreliable guide to taste. The classic example is the Chardonnay grape. Planted in say, California, it can make for an easy but woody wine, often with residual sugar. But this is not so much a reflection of the grape as of the things that are done to it once it has been picked.
In France, the same grape yields wildly different wines every hundred miles or so. In Burgundy, it is the only white wine grape of consequence but only a fool would confuse the very different wines of, say, Chablis with the wines of Meursault.
So, no matter which system of labelling you use, the old adage remains: you can’t judge a wine by its label.
Q: Why do Indian sommeliers keep referring to wines by grape variety alone?
A: It is not their fault. They are usually trained by not very good people. And they are told to do this.
There are only a few sommeliers in India who I would trust to recommend a wine. My current favourite is Gaurav Dixit of the Leela group. But I am sure there must be other good ones.
Q: Do you think the vintage is important?
A: Yes, of course. But also: not always.
Wines are much more consistent now than they used to be. In the old days (say, the 1980s), ordering a glass of local wine in France was a bit of a crap shoot because the wines varied so much from year to year.
Now, the rule is that if it’s a relatively cheap to middle level wine, don’t worry too much about the vintage. If it is a good or expensive wine, then yes, google the wine before you order to check on the best years.
Q: Does vintage matter for Indian wine?
A: Oddly enough, yes. It does for the good wines.
Take Sette, probably the best Indian red on the market at the moment (with the possible exception of J’noon, from the same owners). It varies greatly from vintage to vintage, at least partly because the composition of the grapes and the style can change. When they first started making it, I thought it had a French character. Now, it tastes more like a Super Tuscan. (A Super Tuscan is an Italian wine that wishes it were French.)
Q: What about champagne? Why do some champagnes mention a vintage and some have no mention of the year?
A: That’s a little complicated.
Unlike most great French wines, champagne can be a blend, combining grapes from several different vineyards and several different years.
Most of the world’s champagne is made to each house’s own style. In theory, a bottle of, say, Lanson or Mumm should taste the same from year to year. The wine maker will take the current year’s harvest and make a wine. Then he will blend it with reserve wines from previous years to create a champagne that is in the house’s style. That’s why a bottle of, say, Moet et Chandon will not usually mention a year.
When the harvest is good, the house will make special champagne using grapes from just that year. This will cost more and often will have a different name so that it can be called a prestige cuvee.
This has all changed a little over the last decade. First of all, the quality of the harvests has improved. Secondly, the demand for premium champagne has grown. Third, the houses have lost the ability to maintain a consistent style: compare a bottle of standard Moet from five years ago to a new one. They will taste different. (The new one may actually be better.)
Now many houses declare vintages every year. More premium champagne is being produced than ever before. And houses are paying more attention to their non-premium wines. I have tried bottles of Lanson, Taittinger and Moet that are much better than I remember them being in the old days.
Also, remember that all wine ages in the bottle. So even a bottle of ordinary non-vintage champagne will age if you hold on to it. So ‘non-vintage’ just means that all the grapes don’t come from a single year.
Q: Do you drink South American wines?
A: No. But that’s only because we don’t import the good ones here.
Q: Do you like Australian/New Zealand wines?
A: Yes. I have often sung the praises of New Zealand wines. Even a mass-produced wine like the Villa Maria Private Bin Pinot Noir can give more expensive French wines a run for their money.
Q: Which is your favourite Indian white wine?
A: None. I don’t drink them though I do drink the reds.
Q: Is there a kind of wine you don’t drink?
A: Yes. Still Rose. There’s no logic to that. It is just a prejudice common to my generation.
Q: Are you biased towards wines from any one grape?
A: No. It would be foolish to say that because grapes vary so much from region to region or even vineyard to vineyard.
Q: Are you biased towards grapes from any one country?
A: Yes. France. But that is also a function of my age. Cheap French wine can be overpriced and disgusting. There are better and cheaper alternatives. But from the middle level up, French still rules my cellar.
Q: What about wines that have become brands?
A: It is very hard to generalise. Some growers carry a guarantee of quality. I would take any Italian wine made by Gaja seriously; perhaps Antinori too.
And the Italians have successfully pushed such wines as the excellent Sassicaia and the less expensive (relatively) Tignanello on the basis of labels.
On the other hand, I will usually steer clear of any wine that sells itself on the basis of the Philippe Rothschild name. The Rothschilds invented wine branding with Mouton Cadet, the foulest and most overpriced wine I know. The same is true of some other growers.
I would also avoid wines with names like Fat Bastard. If the wine is any good, you don’t need a provocative name.
Q: Would you advise young people to become sommeliers?
A: No. Not in India.
It is a mug’s game . You are badly-trained by assorted small-timers, misinformed about wine, hardly ever get to taste enough good wine to make your own informed judgements and then are stuck with bad wine lists that the importers have dictated.
Become bartenders instead. That’s where the future lies.
Q: Do you think much of Indian wine competitions and awards?
A: Have you seen the judges? That should tell you everything you need to know.
Q: You seem very down on the Indian wine industry. Aren’t there people you respect?
A: Of course there are. We have some outstanding wine makers who work in very difficult conditions. I respect Rajeev Samant for more or less creating the Indian wine boom on his own. I admire Kapil Sekhi of Fratelli for his commitment to quality.
My own wine guru is Sanjay Menon, the single best informed Indian when it comes to wine.
I have huge respect for some sommeliers (not just Gaurav Dixit who I mentioned earlier). I think Madhulika Dhall (alias Madame La Cave) has done a fabulous job in popularising wine and in opening up the retail sector.
And there are many more.
Q: What is the best way to learn about wine?
A: Drink lots of it. There is no better teacher than a corkscrew.
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