The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: The 7 commandments of experiencing fine wine
I don’t know if you are on Instagram or have any interest in wine. But if you do know your way around Instagram and a wine cellar, then you should check out two accounts I follow. The first is Heminadwalia. Last week, the posts included a photo of two bottles of Chateau Margaux. The text read “Comparison of Chateau Margaux 1982 vs 1983 vintage side by side. The ‘82 Margaux beats the ’83 Margaux by a whisker....”
Another account I follow is called My_wineadventures and last week, it posted a photo of eight empty bottles of wine. The copy read “Rare Bordeaux: Lesser known 1982 wines..... some great wines and hidden gems .....”
I looked at the bottles. They included Leoville Lascases, possibly one of the best wines of Bordeaux. And the other “lesser known wines” were actually household names: Calon Segur, La Lagune, etc.
So why were they described as “lesser known”?
Well, because the guys who run these accounts drink wine that is even better than these excellent bottles most of the time. Their other posts include such wines as Haut Brion 1999 or magnums of Penfolds Grange 2010 or Domaine De La Romanee Conti Corton etc.
I have met the two guys who run these accounts (I don’t have their permission so I won’t name them) and both live in Mumbai and are extraordinarily knowledgeable about wine. They drink many of the world’s best wines on a regular basis. Each time I have spoken to them, I have discovered something new about wine.+
A decade ago, when the world’s great wine producers made their rounds of India, they hoped that we would, one day, become major consumers of fine wine. It hasn’t happened yet but as a new generation comes of age, I get the feeling that the market for great wines is finally developing.
All Indian lovers of fine wine I know are rich (they would have to be to afford the wines they drink) but they are not Birla-Ambani rich. Rather, they are well-off guys who spend money on good wine not to show off but because they actually like the stuff.
The growth of the fine wine sector is usually accompanied by a similar growth at the middle-end of the market. So far, this has not been apparent. What we have seen is some growth at the bottom end, with young people drinking cheaper Indian wines as well as some generic plonk from abroad.
But I now get the feeling that perhaps the market for good (but not great) wines is finally picking up. Some of this has to do with the multiplicity of importers who are now bringing a greater variety of wines into the Indian market than even before. And some of it --- I hope ---is because our palates are improving and we are beginning to be able to tell the difference between good wine and plonk.
Certainly, the questions I am asked about wine are significantly different now than they were three years ago when I last did a column on FAQs about wine. So here is my list of tips for negotiating restaurant wine lists in India.+
Don’t waste time chatting to the sommelier.
When I travel to countries with a wine-drinking culture, I hardly ever order the wine myself. I tell the sommelier what I am eating and what my budget is and ask him or her to recommend something surprising and appropriate. I have learnt more about wine that way than I have from reading scores of books on the subject.
In India the opposite is true. I imagine Indian sommeliers have dartboards with my face on them hung up in their rooms because I am forever dissing them. But honestly, nothing has changed over the last few years. There are some good ones of course but the vast majority are completely useless. Even those who claim to have passed various wine exams can never recommend a good bottle.
And don’t be too impressed if the sommelier is white. The right question to ask is not “Can I ask this French person to suggest a good wine?” It is “if this French sommelier is any good, then why is he pushing Chilean wine in Gurgaon? Why isn’t he working in Europe?”
Do not order cheap wine
Hotels often put the highest mark-ups on the cheapest bottles. The more expensive bottles have the lowest mark-ups. So a relatively expensive bottle of wine will more accurately reflect the real cost of the wine. A cheap wine will sell at three times the price the hotel bought it at. Or even more.
Be careful of wines with generic names
There are parts of the world where wines are branded by grape variety (Australia, New Zealand, America etc.) But in the old world (France, Italy etc.) only the cheapest plonk meant for the export market is identified by grape. If say, a wine from Burgundy says Pinot Noir or Chardonnay on the label, then it is the kind of plonk no Frenchman would drink.
When it comes to the New World, there are big companies that export to India and sell their basic wines under generic names: Say Villa Maria or Saint Clair from New Zealand or Kendall Jackson from California. These wines will rarely disappoint because they are made to uniform standards of blandness. But they will never be special or memorable either.
So, if you want to spend a little money to drink something special, look for a label (in California, for instance) with some prestige attached to it. With the old world look for a wine that does not bother too much with advertising its grapes. Look for regions, vineyards or even, in some cases (Italy, for example) brands.
You will get no help from Indian sommeliers who seem to have been taught only about grape varieties and not allowed by their (often very fancy) hotels to drink good wine themselves or given the opportunity to eat their way through the menu so they can think of wine and food pairings.
I am always annoyed, for instance, by sommeliers who serve a well-known Italian wine like Tignanello with a knowing smirk while saying “here is your Sangiovese, sir.” First of all, the wine has three grapes (Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) not just Sangiovese and secondly, the point of Tignanello is that it is about more than just its grapes. But so many sommeliers do this that I imagine that some dimwit has trained them to focus only on grape varieties.
Steer clear of South America+
Wine-writers will tell you that some of the greatest bargains are to be had in Argentina, where the wines can be very good. Chile is, of course, well-established as a source of good, well-priced wines.
But here’s my problem. The South American wines that get imported into India tend to be supermarket-quality garbage. The good stuff simply does not usually make it here --- or, if it does, I have not seen it on wine lists.
Nobody drinks German wines outside of Germany because a) the Germans ruined their own reputation by mass-marketing Blue Nun, Black Tower-type rubbish around the world; b) nobody can pronounce the names of the better wines and c) everyone thinks of German wine as too sweet.
In fact, the Germans make very good, complex wines with a wonderful balance between sweetness and acidity that not only go well with Indian food but also work surprisingly well with Chinese and Japanese dishes.
Sadly, not that many people import good German wine and if they do, hotels don’t always agree to put it on their lists.
If you want to drink expensive wine, drink champagne+
Not all of us can afford to drink two different vintages of Chateau Margaux and compare them on Instagram. But there is one high quality wine that is readily available in India and is not priced at Chateau Margaux levels.
Vintage champagne is one of the world’s great bargains. Most hotels will carry stocks of Dom Perignon, Cristal or even Krug on their lists. None of these wines will be cheap. But they will cost less than classic Bordeaux or even cult California wines.
What’s more, champagne is a food wine. It goes with nearly everything, and it works especially well with Indian food. So stop treating champagne as a celebratory bubbly and enjoy it for what it is: a truly great wine that (mainly because the Chinese still haven’t discovered it and pushed up the price) is still not ridiculously overpriced.
Buy your wine abroad
It really doesn’t make sense to buy duty-free Black Label or Chivas Regal any longer. Yes, you save a little money. But these whiskies are easily available in India now.
Instead, buy some good wine the next time you travel. Customs will let you bring in two bottles so if you are a couple, you can import four bottles duty free.
That’s what many of these fine-wine Instagram guys do. Good wine is never cheap but it always costs much less abroad than it does it an Indian hotel or restaurant.+
That way you’ll develop a taste for one of the finer things in life without having to cope with the vagaries of Indian wine importers, the greed of fancy hotels that mark up their wines to ridiculous levels and the foolishness of sommeliers.
You won’t get to the stage where you’ll be able to dismiss Leoville Lascases as a lesser known wine.
But at least, your palate will be your true guide. When it comes to learning to appreciate wine, nothing beats a corkscrew.