Sunday, 29 September 2013

A Brave New Swirl: The Future Belongs to Indian Wines

This opinion piece has appeared in the latest edition of Time Out magazine.

After getting over our old obsession with French wines, we fell in love with the New World, only to rediscover the heady liquids coming out of our own backyard

By Sourish Bhattacharyya

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IT WAS at the turn of the new millennium that I met the colourful Australian chef named Bill Marchetti, who will go down in my history book as the man who taught India’s elite to drink wine. Being Aussie, Bill had no time for humbug and he used to find it hilarious that some very rich Delhiites would sink a lot of serious money in what he would call cat’s piss. It’s a serious wine-tasting expression reserved for a particularly grassy Sauvignon Blanc, but Bill wasn’t using the expression in the sense familiar to a wine encyclopaedia.
Those were the days when people would proudly gift bottom-of-the-barrel table wines from a French company named Barton & Guestier (which, I must add, doesn’t only produce bad wine!), just because it was French. The waiters knew only one name and it was Chateauneuf du Pape, the name given to wines produced within the geographical appellation of the same name in south-eastern France. It was easy to remember the wine because everyone used its acronym CDP, though some Punjabi gents insisted on calling it papay (Arre, ek papay pila!), without the least respect for the allusion to the first French Pope, Clement V, a great lover of Burgundy wines, and his six successors who shepherded the faithful in the tumultuous years of the Avignon papacy (1309-1378). Chateauneuf du Pape was the ‘Castle of the Pope’.
The other reigning divinity of that era was Georges Duboeuf, the man famously known as the Pope of Beaujolais, which is another prominent geographical appellation, but wines people drank with gusto were the ones his humongous factories mass produce for less discerning markets. People were drinking bad wine and they were drinking it just because it was French, so much so that if one received a vin de pays (second from the bottom) as gift, instead of a vin de table (lowest of the low),  one considered it a major honour.
The five ‘growths’ of the 1855 Classification and the grand vin of Bordeaux, the grand cru and premier cru of Burgundy, and the many finer points of this complicated caste system went on top of the heads of the drinking public. The handful of oenophiles came across as a bunch of old farts with a lot of money that they had found no female recipients for, or bored housewives who needed an honourable way to keep themselves busy. Who had the time to figure out that Chablis was not a grape variety but the name of the northernmost wine-making district of Burgundy, or the patience to wait for a decade or more for one of Bordeaux’s pricey red wines to ‘open up’ and become ‘drinkable’, or the inclination to find out if the Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande was better than the Pichon Longueville Baron — both are Second Growths and therefore high up in the Bordeaux caste hierarchy.
Old World wines can confuse the hell out of ordinary mortals. When the Europeans framed their arcane wine regulations, which require you to be a walking wine encylopaedia to know what you’re drinking, they did not account for the drink finding a following across the world. They merrily went about inventing a wine argot that only insiders understood and the French inheritance laws complicated matters further. The famous Burgundy grand cru of Clos Vougeot, as a result, is actually 51 hectares divided into plots that belong to 80 different owners. Grand cru, incidentally, is a term reserved only for the elite 550 hectares of vineyards in the region.
You can imagine how confusing it can get when you have some of the finest wines of France coming with unpronounceable names of vineyards superimposed with the names of the villages where they are located. So, when you are served a Gevrey Chambertin, which is the name of a village (or commune) in Burgundy, you have to know that you’re about to drink a Pinot Noir, a fruity red wine that expresses itself best in Burgundy, though people in Oregon may not agree with this proposition.
If that is not a shock in itself, how about trying to recall the nine grand crus located in this historic village? And I am not even asking you to decipher what a TBA signifies on a German wine label. It is not ‘to be announced’, but Trockenbeerenauslese, or ‘dried berries selection’, which signifies that the wine you are drinking is a dessert wine made with hand-picked grapes affected by noble rot.
The New World — Argentina, Australia, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States — has made life a lot uncomplicated. The labels, for starters, are not like Hercule Poirot mysteries. If it’s a Chardonnay or a Pinot Noir, a New World label says so in as many words. It tells you all you’d want to know about the wine (grape variety, alcohol percentage and country and region of origin) without challenging your knowledge of French or Italian or German, or of geography. And what’s better, you can buy a bottle of New World wine and drink it on the same day; it may get better with age, but it’s not ‘closed’ or ‘tannic’ (in other words, undrinkable) when young. New World styles are more welcoming, more accessible. The French may sniff at New World wines for being “Coca-Cola”, but the world just loves them — and now, labels such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate, Opus One, Penfolds Grange and Montes Alpha M have caught up with the heavy hitters of the Old World.
A wine connoisseur may tell you that there’s a palpable difference between the wines of the Napa Valley and those of the Russian River Valley (California), or of the Barossa Valley and the Margaret River Valley (Australia), or of Marlborough and Central Otago (New Zealand), but if you don’t care, it doesn’t matter. Whether you like a Chardonnay or a Zinfandel, or Anything But Chardonnay, all you need to do is go to the nearest liquor store and pick up a bottle whose label says so. No guessing games, no riddles — and thankfully no cork.
The embarrassment of a cork breaking as you struggle to extricate it from the neck of a bottle is too common an experience to be repeated in print. The possibility that your wine may be corked — out of every 100 bottles, three are likely to be contaminated by a substance released by cork — has only solidified the argument against this closure technique that has run out its lease. Fortunately, much of the world (with the dogged exception of France, Italy and Spain) has switched over to screwcaps, which we all know how to unscrew without difficulty, because the fresher, ready-to-drink winemaking styles lend themselves to this idiot-proof form of closure.
New World wines gained a market initially only because they were much cheaper to import, which made it easier for vendors to sell them at competitive prices to hotels and restaurants without seriously compromising their margins. Take the Argentine economic crisis (1999-2002). It pulled down Malbec prices so much that the world started drinking the plump red wine from Mendoza as if it was going out of fashion. The taste grew on the world and soon, we realised we were on to a good thing.
Chilean wines became hot favourites in India for a similar reason. In Maharashtra, it used to be very cheap to import and bottle wines bought in bulk from the international market. Rajeev Samant’s Sula seized the opportunity and used imported Chilean bulk wine to produce Satori Merlot. The red wine clicked and created a market for Chilean wines.
In the case of Australia, though, it was aggressive marketing to enter new markets, necessitated by overproduction at home, which led to the push towards India. With the market share of French wines dropping to 39 per cent, the New World (mainly Chile and Australia), which had zero presence here at the start of the new millennium, commands a healthy 37 per cent. Italy too has made serious inroads into the Indian market, thanks to a concerted push by its state agencies, and today straddles 24 per cent of it.
The future, though, belongs to Indian wines, which has got a new lease of life with the emergence of Fratelli as a serious player and with more (though not necessarily better) labels coming out of Bangalore. The quality of Indian wines has shown a remarkable improvement in the last ten years — Fratelli’s Sette, Sula’s Dindori Shiraz and Four Seasons Barrique Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon top my personal favourites list — and it is unsurprisingly attracting the hip and young. The world has discovered Indian food; it’s India’s turn now to discover Indian wine. India is wine’s newest world.