The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: The dos and don’ts of experiencing fine (and not so fine) wine
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi continues from where he left off two weeks ago, and tells you everything you need to know about wine.more lifestyle Updated: Dec 27, 2017 08:49 IST
I wrote, two weeks ago, about a boom in the number of people drinking good wine in India – and then putting their favourites on Instagram and other social media. I still don’t have the statistics required to substantiate my claims about a boom but on a purely anecdotal basis, judging from reactions to the column, there is much greater interest in wine than before.
There are also a multiplicity of opinions about this boom and many people rushed to the defence of Indian sommeliers who I dissed in that column (No. I haven’t seen any reason to change my view. Most of them are useless.)
So here are some more of my prejudices, or at least the ones people have asked about in the fortnight since the column appeared.
Decanting: Sommeliers get into interminable discussions about this. But all we need to concern ourselves with are the two reasons for decanting a wine.
The first is if it is very old and sediment has accumulated. The decanting ritual beloved of sommeliers (candle near the bottle, funnels and other such dramas) make sense in these cases but in reality, few of us are going to drink 1962 Latour so this kind of decanting is of little interest to us.
The second kind of decanting focuses on one of the great mysteries of wine drinking: the relationship between wine and oxygen. We know that wine changes as soon as it is exposed to air. Keep a wine bottle open for too long and the wine will spoil.
But we also know that many wines begin to improve as soon they are exposed to oxygen. The trick lies in knowing exactly how much exposure to the atmosphere will improve the wine and how to stop before it starts to spoil.
It is an inexact science and every sommelier has his or her view and it varies from wine to wine and bottle to bottle. Some wine experts, for instance, say that no decanting is ever needed.
My own prejudice is to decant most young red wines. I find that they improve with exposure to oxygen. The late Simon Hoggart, who wrote wittily about wine, used to believe that even white wines should be exposed to oxygen before drinking. It wasn’t necessary to decant them but it helped to keep them in your glasses for a while before drinking them.
Glasses: For years, I used to laugh at people who said that you needed different glasses for Burgundy and Bordeaux. But after my friend, Sanjay Menon, served me the same wine from different kinds of glasses (all made by Riedel) I have had to admit that I was foolish to scoff.
A glass can change the way a wine tastes. Partly, this has to do with how much of the surface area of the wine in the glass is exposed to oxygen (see above) but it also has to do with taste receptors on our tongue. Each glass sends wine into our mouths in a slightly different way. And so, different taste buds are activated and the wine can taste different.
Unless you are drinking very good wine however, the broad rule of thumb is that a large, broad-mouthed glass works better for red wine. And good champagne should never be drunk from a flute.
New World vs Old World: There are people who like only Old World (France, Italy, Germany etc.) wines and those who say that New World wines (America, Australia, etc.) are as good or better.
I find it impossible to generalise because New World wines now have such varied characteristics that comparisons are meaningless. In general though, New World is often shorthand for wines that taste of wood (vanilla flavours), are slightly sweeter (for white wines) or have fewer tannins (for red).
It is worth keeping in mind though that in 1976, at a blind tasting of Californian and French wines, attended by many top French experts, the winners were the California wines. The French responded that California wines tasted better when young. The French wines, they said, would improve with age.
So the same wines were tasted again in 2006 (though only two French experts agreed to take part this time). California won easily, once again. The top French wine, Mouton Rothschild, came sixth. Five California wines, many of which cost much less, came out ahead.
Indian wines: Some are very good. Many are not. But the good wines are not cheap and the question of whether they are as good as foreign wines in their price range is open.
Don’t be prejudiced against them. But equally don’t feel obliged to drink them only because Indian wine companies have spent a lot of time and money cultivating Indian sommeliers and wine writers. (Foreign wine companies don’t usually bother to cultivate Indian wine writers and sommeliers because the market is not large enough.)
You have no obligation to increase the profits of the Indian wine industry by drinking its wines. Your only imperative is to drink the best wine you can afford.
New Zealand wines: Few people realise this but wines from New Zealand have the highest average price in the world. This is not because all New Zealand wines are expensive (they are not) but because New Zealand, unlike say France or America, does not make plonk or cheap wine. So a New Zealand wine is always the safest option on an unfamiliar wine list. It may not be very good or memorable (though the best wines are truly exceptional) but it will almost always never be bad.
Spoiled Wine: Can wine go bad? Yes it can and often does. When they offer you a taste of the wine at a restaurant before serving it, they are not asking if you like it. (Even if you don’t, it is too late now; you did order the damn thing!) They are asking you to check if it is ‘off’ or ‘spoilt’.
Wines can spoil for various reasons. If the bottles are exposed to too much heat – lying around in a cargo dump awaiting customs clearances, for instance --- the wine will be ‘cooked’ and taste horrible. If the cork has shrunk or deteriorated (cheap corks can disintegrate), then oxygen may enter the bottle and spoil the wine (see above). There is also a fungal agent that creates a compound called TCA which spoils the taste of wine.
Generally, red wines are as likely to spoil as white, but we tend to notice deterioration in white wine more easily. White burgundy is always the riskiest wine to order because a lot of what is available is spoiled.
If a wine tastes off, return it. Any good sommelier (oh, here we go again!) will take it back and replace the bottle. It’s a good idea though not to ask for another bottle of the same wine. The chances are that the whole case is spoiled. Don’t be swayed if the hotel tells you how carefully it stores its wine. It did not buy the bottle from the vineyard. It has no way of knowing what happened to the bottle or how it was stored before it reached the hotel.
Prosecco: An Italian sparkling wine from the region around Venice, it is often offered at restaurant brunches in place of champagne. Personally, I don’t drink it but lots of people love it because it is not particularly alcoholic and it’s quality (overall) has improved in this century.
The original Bellini was created by Harry’s Bar in Venice from Prosecco and peach pulp and Prosecco is a good (and relatively inexpensive) choice for cocktails.
Wine Grading: Is there an objective way of judging wine? I don’t think so. Most judgements about wine have to be subjective though broadly speaking, it is easy enough to distinguish very good from very bad. The problem lies in the middle rank. Also definitions of ‘ very good’ can vary.
The influential American wine writer Robert Parker popularised a system of giving marks out of hundred to wines. Most people I know don’t necessarily agree with Parker’s approach but they acknowledge that he has an exceptional palate and will treat his marks as a rough guide to quality while recognising that he likes a certain style of wine and that such wines will get more marks.
But bear in mind that even the most famous wine experts can make fools of themselves at blind tastings. And also remember that how we judge wine depends on many factors: how happy we were when we drank it, what we were eating at the time and what we had heard about the wine.
In 2008, American researchers offered subjects a wine that they were told cost $ 10 a bottle. They then offered them the same wine again and told them it cost $ 40. Not only did the vast majority fail to notice that they were drinking the same wine but they also said that they liked the “second wine” much more!
Drink slowly: Do you sometimes notice that the waiter at your restaurant hovers by your table? That the moment the level of wine in your glass drops, he rushes forward and tops it up?
He isn’t doing it to provide good service. Many restaurants train their staff to do this so that you are nudged towards drinking more quickly than you normally would.
The restaurant wants you to finish the bottle halfway through your meal. Then, the waiter will ask “May I get you another bottle, sir?” If you are with a guest, you may be pressured into saying ‘yes’ because you don’t want to seem cheap.
So here’s what I do. I tell the waiter that I will ask him to pour the wine when I need it. And if I want another bottle, I will let him know.
Because when it comes to wine, never let anyone push you around! You are spending a lot of money. You have the right to enjoy your wine any way and at any pace you desire!