By Sourish Bhattacharyya
VILLA MEDICI, the rooftop banqueting space of The Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, came alive on Saturday afternoon with one of the world's finest wines, the warmth and conversations that only such pleasures can inspire, and the re-ignition of an old debate in food and wine pairing. Can Indian food, which can be as complex, textured and flavourful as a full-bodied Bordeaux red, and fine wine make for a good marriage? This was the question at the core of the discussion that was conducted with aplomb by Dhruv Sawhney, CMD, Triveni Engineering, who is without doubt Delhi's wine encyclopaedia and a connoisseur in the true sense of the word (and not in the way it is loosely interpreted today).
Before I go on to describe the day's proceedings, where we experienced an extraordinary duet between Executive Chef Amit Chowdhury's kebabs and three wines from Chauteau Margaux, I must say I found the answer I have always been seeking in the concluding observation by Paul Pontallier, Chateau Margaux's managing director and chief architect of its return to glory along with its owner, Corrine Mentzelopoulos.
"A good pairing between food and wine is like a successful marriage," he said. "For a marriage to be successful, one of the partners has to tone down his or her personality. Similarly, for a pairing to work, the food and the wine cannot both have strong personalities." He also had another gem to offer: a happy pairing is all about "matching the pleasure of food with the pleasure of wine". Only a Frenchman could make the experience sound so magical -- and it was indeed so, for we were able to see for ourselves the fallacy of the blanket statement that Indian food and fine wines don't match.
We tasted for ourselves the truth of Pontallier's pronouncement. The miniature galouti kebabs served on baby sheermal, a challenge to match with any wine in the best of times because of the diverse spices (32 in all) these are spiked with, clearly prevailed over the Chateau Margaux 2001, a deliciously well-developed wine whose aromatic finesse and tender tannins may have agreed better with a Dal Makhni.
|As you can see, we didn't leave a drop behind!|
The galouti experience, after two rounds of perfect matches, underlined the challenges of pairing Indian food with the fine wines (or grand vin) of Bordeaux. We were five of us -- acclaimed restaurant critic Marryam Reshii, celebrated sommelier Magandeep Singh, Indian Wine Academy's founder-president Subhash Arora, blogger Karina Aggarwal and Ajay Khullar of India Today Travel Plus -- and our hosts, apart from Pontallier, Sawhney and Chowdhury, were the Taj General Manager Satyajeet Krishnan, Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos, Corrine's younger daughter and head of the India market, Thibault Pontallier, Paul's son and the very well-spoken brand ambassador of Chateau Margaux for Asia based in Hong Kong, and wine importer Sanjay Menon from Mumbai.
We all agreed on three points: the Pavillon Rouge 2003, the estate's second wine, was the clear winner and most Indian food-friendly; you cannot pair spice-heavy food and fine wines whose tannins haven't yet mellowed, so you have to hold back on the spice attack and choose a wine that had opened up; and the best pairing of the day was the one between the Pavillon Rouge 2003 and the zarkhanda kebabs, which had slivers of roasted lamb, prunes and pickled onion co-existing in happy togetherness. Alexandra, who can break into raptures over the paranthas (including one with a chocolate filling) she last had in Mumbai on one of her many private visits to India, assured us that she has only red wines with the Indian food that she cooks very often. "Don't be under the impression that I only drink Chateau Margaux," she said.
I asked Chef Chowdhury what 'zarkhanda' meant. He said he had no idea because chefs most often give names that don't mean anything! Chowdhury, incidentally, was recently included as one of the world's 50 great chefs by the New York-based photographer Melanie Dunea in her well-received book, The Last Supper, where she recorded the food fantasies of her well-known and much-celebrated subjects by asking them what would their last meal on earth be.
The Pavillon 2003, which has a four-centuries-old history, got Thibault talking. He reminded us that France experienced its hottest summer after 1893 in 2003, which isn't good news for any wine, yet it floored us with what his father described as "its combination of strength and gentle sweetness". Thibault pointed out that it was an example of a great terroir prevailing over a bad vintage. He then shared with us a thought to ponder over.
Unlike the grand signature wines of Bordeaux's celebrity estates, the seconds are not only substantially cheaper, but also "you need to wait less to drink it". The Pavillon 2003 was a testimonial to the joys of drinking a second wine of an estate whose signature wine, especially in our restaurants (a point Arora raised in his inimitable no-nonsense way), is miles beyond the means of most mere mortals. "It is a very good introduction to Chateau Margaux," Thibault said, and he wasn't exaggerating.
Before Andre Mentzelopoulos, Alexandra's grandfather, took over Chateau Margaux, Pavillon consumed 70 per cent of the estate's wine grapes and the best 30 per cent was earmarked for the signature wine; today, the wine grapes are divided into three parts -- one third for Chateau Margaux, another third for Pavillon, and the rest is used to make bulk wines. The same selectiveness goes into making the Pavillon Blanc (we tasted the 2009, which stood out because of its amazing perfume and long caress), Margaux's white wine made 100 per cent with Sauvignon Blanc. It was one of the finest expressions of Sauvignon Blanc I have tasted in many years and it paired like magic with the murgh makhmali seekh and the roasted spinach and corn kebabs on sugarcane skewers.
Unsurprisingly, not more than 60 per cent of the estate's Sauvignon Blanc production, from the 11 hectares reserved for the grape variety, goes into the wine, which translates to 1,000 bottles per hectare; the remaining grapes are sold off cheap to bulk wine producers. As Pontallier Senior emphasised, "It is our business to be the best."
Another point made by Thibault was that 2001 wasn't one of the most famous or the most expensive vintages of Bordeaux, yet we couldn't stop admiring the wine. "You must know how to choose a vintage," Thibault's father said, citing the 2004 for the "unbelievable value" it offered. "Don't only go for the huge vintages," Paul Pontallier, Bordeaux's elder statesman, declared. Those words, for me, summed up the philosophy of buying Bordeaux's fine wines. Don't be a snob and invest all your money only on best-selling wines. Also pick up the less-celebrated vintages because they, like the second wines, are cheaper and open up faster and have the depth to surprise you.