Wine glasses

How to balance multiple readerships is my challenge.
Wine one week; heritage conservation, the next; and wildlife, the third. How to make wine glasses palatable for the activist so that they don’t dismiss it as frou-frou?
I often think of narrowing down my writing to one topic. Just can’t figure out which one will sustain my interest.

In search of the perfect wine glass

A goblet being gilded at a unit of Baccarat in Nancy, France. Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP

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Anyone who has stayed in a hostel has a resource-constrained mindset towards food. I don’t care which college you went to. Standing in line and waiting for a finite amount of food does something to your psyche. It makes you think of food, not as a pleasure to be had, but as a resource to be grabbed. It has taken me several decades to get out of this mindset.
I write this as I drink a 2011 Chateau de Fontenille from a wine goblet with a curvy bottom that is shaped like Jennifer Lopez’s—there is no other way to say this—flight path if she were sitting on a boomerang. The wine is golden in colour and goes straight down—like the Congress party. It is available in Bengaluru for about `2,000 and is a blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris, muscadelle and semillon.
The best part of this wine is that the grassy acidity of sauvignon blanc is hidden, or at least balanced, by the other grapes. I have not had a sauvignon blanc that I like in years. Friends have been raving about Charosa’s version but I haven’t tried enough of their wines to agree. I don’t like sauvignon blanc’s herbaceousness. If I want that taste, I’d rather eat ajwain (carom seeds).
The wine is from the lesser-known area of Entre-Deux-Mers, between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in France. I have a case and enjoy it with the manchego cheese that my friend, Phyllis, brings for me from the Whole Foods Market in New York.
The main point of this passage is not the wine but the fact that I am drinking it from a glass that I love. As a college student, if you had told me that people would pay good money for dishes from Rosenthal, Noritake, Villeroy & Boch, and Versace, I would have sputtered out the hot hostel bondas that were served on greasy, grainy stainless steel plates with a side order of a scowl.
Behavioural economics has shown that the environment in which you eat matters just as much as what you eat. A study conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab enlisted an actress who would wear a fat suit and dine with fellow students. The study discovered that people do eat more when they are with heavier people. Moral of the story: When you go out to eat, sit with a thin friend.
Does drinking wine from a pretty glass make the wine taste better? I was about to find out.
My wine glasses are in a state of flux. As newly-weds, we bought Baccarat crystal glasses, which got destroyed on one memorable evening when my husband and I threw them at the wall to… check if they would bounce. When the children were little, we bought pewter glasses from Royal Selangor in Malaysia. They look like Roman amphora now, after many washes in the dishwasher. This year I decided to get a whole new set that fulfilled a specific criteria: They had to look good and feel good; and not be so expensive that I would un-friend those friends who broke my wine glasses. That meant removing Bottega del Vino, Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau from the list; not that they are easy to get in India.
The glasses I bought are by a Thai brand called Lucaris. I bought a set of six at HomeStop for under `4,000. The wine glasses from the “Tokyo Collection” are expansive—not expensive. They are better than Riedel which, in my view, has become an overexposed brand. When you can walk into a Macy’s at Tyson’s Corner Center mall in the Washington, DC area, or at 1MG Road in Bengaluru, and buy Riedel glasses for 50% off, then you know that the brand, which once marketed itself as exclusive, is actually not.
I know wine tumblers are all the rage, but I think they were designed with breakage in mind rather than the beauty of the glass itself. A tumbler doesn’t give me the feeling that I am drinking wine. It’s like drinking filter coffee in a cup. It may serve the purpose but it just ain’t right.
Being south Indian, I’m not as finicky about chai. I know that it perhaps tastes better in a kulhar, but I like drinking my green or masala tea in thin, clinking China cups, with a pretty glass teapot that has an infuser in the middle so that you can see the beautiful tea liquor turn golden. Pour the tea into a glass cup the way the plantation folk do it and you can enjoy your tea in a way that “Nair, single tea,” will never equal.
I have gone from being a utilitarian diner to a finicky one, especially as far as the serving ware is concerned. It had to happen of course. I grew up eating on banana leaves where you had to build dams out of white rice to protect the rasam from running over. There is a charm in that. But there is nothing wrong with the plates that Thomas Keller has designed (I think the Taj group has them in its New Delhi restaurant), pretty linen napkins, sleek cutlery or silverware as the Americans would have it; and wine goblets that curve like a certain part of the anatomy.

Shoba Narayan drinks Kusmi tea from a translucent teapot. Write to her at

KRSMA and Champ de Reves

My policy towards free stuff pretty much echoes my editors.  As far as travel goes, some magazines allow me to take free travel. The Taj group for instance, will email and say, let us send you here “just to experience.”  Of course, there is no free lunch and the assumption is that you will write about it for someone. I hate these golden handcuffs.  These days, I only take free trips if an editor assigns an article on the destination.  Otherwise, it is a waste of time.

Same with wine.  Indian wine-makers like to send free cases to whoever they believe will help influence.  The thing is that it is not THAT expensive to buy a bottle, so then I think, “Do I want to be beholden to these people?” and usually it is not worth it.

So it was with KRSMA.  Their marketing person, Sneha, emailed me saying that they wanted me to taste their wine.  Since I had already bought and tasted their wines, I didn’t reply.  Then, the founder, Krishna Prasad Chigurupati wrote.  Now, this is a guy, who has run marathons in every continent (along with his wife, Uma).  So I am sorta in awe of them.  I have never met them or spoken to them by phone even.  But Mint Lounge did a story about them, which is how I know about the marathon thing.  To combine wine, a pharmaceutical business, and marathons takes some doing and these guys are “punting at a high level,” as someone I know (NR) would say, so I didn’t know what to do.  Take my wine, says this guy Krishna.  I’ll buy it, says I.  Please send us your address, says he.  I don’t reply for ages.  Bottom line: I got this wine for free and I am sort of upset about it because it reflects all the issues I have about the food and beverage industry on so many levels: about objectivity in reviewing when the publication doesn’t have the money to review; and whether reviews actually work in terms of what they are supposed to do.


So I got a few KRSMA wines some months ago, and I have been trying them. Here is the good stuff. I believe that KRSMA is in it for the long haul and I believe that they have the means, the passion, and the know-how to make good wine. By that I mean that this couple has travelled and tasted the best; they have high standards; and while it is a commercial venture, they are after the glory as well. They are a class act and they won’t skimp or nickle and dime. Here is a photo of the founders.

Are their wines good? Comme ci comme ça. I haven’t had a good sauvignon blanc in ages, and I liked theirs. I think part of the trick with wines is figuring out what you like. I like karela and grapefruit and so I like bitter stuff: Gruner Veltliner is a favorite wine. KRSMA’s sauvignon blanc had that tinge of karela/grapefruit complexity with a hint of bitterness that I like. I also don’t like oaked chardonnays and theirs is unoaked. I don’t like high alcohol wines and all their wines are under 14% alcohol even the reds. I don’t like their reds as much as I do their whites, but that is an India problem. In my view, it is hard to make decent reds in India.

I had a great red recently. I got it in DC with an autograph from the winemaker. It wasn’t that expensive: under $100, but man, the aroma. Better than the last Burgundy pinot I tried. The bottle had an autograph from “Eric,” and I am keeping it.


Indian Wine

The wine club that I belong to is informal and wonderful. We meet, drink good wine and talk about life.
Below is a wine we drank recently.


Just kidding. That was a gift from my wine-collector brother-in-law. At the Oberoi Bangalore, we tried this and it was amazing.

The route to Napa is through Nashik
Making a case for encouraging domestic production and consumption of wine in India
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I am on the phone with Xavier de Eizaguirre, whose name is less consonant-ridden and hard to pronounce than a self-respecting south Indian name (Venkataramanan, for instance). Eizaguirre is the chairman of Vinexpo, a trade fair for the wine and spirits industry. He is in Mumbai to drum up support for Vinexpo Asia-Pacific 2014, which is to be held in Hong Kong from 27-29 May.
As someone who drinks wine in the fond hope that its tannins will make my complexion look as radiant as Catherine Deneuve or at least Charlie Chaplin, I am as good a candidate as any for a discussion on wine.
So why is Eizaguirre here? After all Indians drink abysmally low quantities of wine. We probably drink more Woodward’s Gripe water or Safi blood purifier. The answer lies in the numbers. According to a new survey commissioned by Vinexpo, Asia is where the markets are.
Though we drink very little wine compared to China, the growth in still and sparkling wine expected in India between 2008 and 2017 is a whopping 68%. We are still low on the totem pole, below Thailand, the Philippines and even Vietnam in terms of quantity, but we are expected to make the biggest gains. The top 10 wine-consuming countries are the US, France, Italy, Germany, China, UK, Argentina, Russia, Spain and Australia. Going forward, wine consumption in most of these countries is expected to stay the same or fall a little. Only the US, and to a much greater degree China, are expected to substantially increase the amount of wine that they imbibe.
India starts from a low base but we have a young population that is discovering new lifestyles. Even though there is huge debate and disagreement about whether our spicy cuisine goes well with wine, it has become more a matter of managing our cuisine and wine pairings, rather than doing away with one or the other. Indians have discovered wine, no doubt about it. Some say fruity white wines pair well with our spicy food while others say we need big bold reds to stand up to the spicy heat of our food.
The Indian wine market is probably where the US was 40 years ago and where China was a mere 15 years ago. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Napa Valley was still farmland, and Americans were drinking jug wine. Today they produce 350 million cases. In three decades, they have become one of the top five players. Local wineries have increased not only the production of wine but also the consumption of wine.
China’s story is a little different. The Chinese market didn’t involve moving from jug wine to Bordeaux and Burgundy. They went straight for the jugular as it were, finding and buying the finest vintages and driving up prices in the process. China consumed over 155 million 9-litre cases of red wine in 2013, a figure nobody would have dreamt of in 2008. From 2008-12, Chinese consumption of still wine went up 136.8%. Compared with that, the expected growth there from 2013-17, of 33.8% (for still and sparkling wine) and 33.17% (for red wine), is paltry.
This is why India is interesting. The question is whether it will follow the US or China model. The US treats wine the way Indians treat jewellery. We are savvy consumers of jewellery, buying it for personal use and enjoyment; and yes, to show off during weddings. China treats wine like a branded good—an Hermès bag, for instance—something to buy for effect and to impress; to show off. My hope is that we will follow the US model.
The best way would be to encourage domestic production and consumption, according to Kripal Amanna, publisher of the Food Lovers magazine; an assessment I agree with. For us, the route to Napa is through Nashik. Or Bangalore. If local wineries thrive, more Indians will drink wine.
Some part of it has to do with pricing. Indian wineries are selling products at ridiculously high prices. “The monthly Indian per capita income stands at $85 (around Rs.5,100). An average wine bottle costs between 12-16% of this,” says Amanna. This worsens when you move from retail to F&B establishment. “And therefore, most Indians find their spiritual solace in other beverages.”
It is in everyone’s interest for the prices to come down. Only when the Americans began drinking $10 wines did they develop a palate and then buy more expensive bottles. Pricing an Indian wine at Rs.750 and above makes little sense if you want to build a market. The sad part is the government policy views low-alcohol wine as a luxury product with equivalent taxes while high-alcohol toddy is not accorded the same stifling penalty.
Wine clubs are proliferating all over India. The time is ripe for local producers to capture and grow this interest. An informal club I belong to served some nice white wines recently: an aromatic white from Château de Fontenille and a 2008 Aussières Blanc Chardonnay from Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). The members of this club travel frequently and bring back wines. They do give Indian wines a try but prefer to pay two-three times more for wines of guaranteed quality. They are the market.

Shoba Narayan is willing to lobby for lower prices for Indian wines.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Comment E-mail Print 39 First Published: Sat, Apr 05 2014. 12 17 AM IST

Sparkling wine

I wanted to meet two sisters in the food and wine business. Their elderflower juice was so aromatic.

Wines, economy and culture preservation
What kind of wines would you put together for an office party?
Shoba Narayan Mail Me
Wines, economy and culture preservation
Juliette (right) and Marie Mommousseau were in Bangalore recently. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
A reader wants to know: What kind of wines would you put together for an office party, assuming a budget of Rs.2,000 per bottle?
I put this question to Juliette Monmousseau, deputy managing director of the United Spirits owned Bouvet Ladubay.
Predictably, she says, “I would use Rs.1,850 to buy a bottle of Bouvet Ladubay Brut and use the leftover Rs.150 to buy a CD of Ram-Leela the movie.”
I am with Monmousseau, her chef-sister Marie, and Abhay Kewadkar, head of the wine business of United Spirits Ltd. It is 4pm at the ITC Gardenia, Bangalore. Later that evening, the Monmousseau sisters will showcase their sparkling wines at a special dinner. Chef Marie has smuggled a black truffle the size of a sweet lime to shave on top of one of her salads. It smells of earth and pig.
We discuss the number of Indian brands that are coming out with sparkling wines. Sula launched three new sparkling wines two months ago.
“Your wines are overpriced,” I tell Kewadkar. “Chandon retails for Rs.1,200; Fratelli at Rs.995 and Sula at Rs.1,075.”
“Those are Bombay prices,” Kewadkar shoots back. “In Bangalore, each of those bottles will cost a few hundred rupees more because of taxes. Plus, those are all locally grown and bottled wines. Ours are Loire Valley wines, in hand at Rs.1,850.”
Kewadkar is an old Bangalore hand. He began as a winemaker with Grover wines (Grover Zampa Vineyards) and has now morphed into a steely-eyed winemaker-businessman with his eye on the bottom line. He speaks about European wines in an earthy Maharashtrian accent and as a result, doesn’t come across as pretentious. I like Kewadkar, even though I don’t care much for the Four Seasons brand that he manages. If you asked why, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a reason. The wines are decent, but somehow I don’t like the packaging design, and the fact that the name has no connection with India. Newer brands like Mandala, Big Banyan and Deva are more confident in their branding approach. Their names allude to India. Four Seasons dumbs down its wines, if that makes sense.
Bouvet Ladubay’s sparkling wine is good. Chef Marie brings out her walnut oil and a fragrant elderflower juice that she will use to prepare her dinner. The two sisters and their father, Patrice, manage the brand, even though Vijay Mallya owns it: something that isn’t widely advertised in the European press. “…though no longer owned by the family, is still operated and managed by the fourth generation of Monmousseau family,” is how a typical press report is phrased. The French don’t like us Indians and Chinese buying up their brands. I can relate. The Goans don’t like the Russians taking over coastal Goa.
Later that evening, I attend a scintillating discussion with Arvind Panagariya on his book, Why Growth Matters (co-authored with Jagdish Bhagwati), which recently made the Financial Times Books of the Year 2013 list. It is a heated, heartfelt discussion by a group of optimists who care about India. There are the lefties like me who don’t completely buy into the “economic reform above all” approach; who question whether it is inclusive enough. There are others—bankers, CEOs and entrepreneurs—who believe that the growth model is the best solution for poverty alleviation. Over bottles of excellent wine, we argue into the night.
The discussion—as always—turns to China and how it has lifted millions out of poverty through its growth-oriented approach. Yes, but China has lost a lot in the process, I argue. It has divested the scholarliness that once permeated its culture—one that is beautifully described in Bette Bao Lord’s book, Spring Moon. China’s hurtling growth has swallowed the gentler arts like calligraphy, degraded its environment, and most importantly, squandered its culture. China was once the mother lode of all the arts that travelled to Korea and then ended in Japan. Ceramics, calligraphy, watercolour paintings, and pretty much every refined art form that we laud in Japan originated in China. But these are not the things the world associates with the country any more. How to put a price on what has been lost? How to balance growth with culture and indigenous arts?
There are a few cultures that have achieved this. The Japanese model has been sequential. When Japan was a basket case, nobody knew about its culture. Once the economy started ascending, everyone wanted a piece of the culture. I recall Harvard Business School students studying Japanese in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to access the culture. Once Japan’s economy triumphed, the world paid attention to its arts. China is at the stage where the world knows its economy but little about its arts. Indeed, the long lines of Chinese who worship at the altar of Louis Vuitton seem to care little about their own culture. If it follows Japan’s sequential model, a focus on culture will follow the growth of the economy.
Other countries—those in Scandinavia in particular—take the concomitant approach where they preserve their culture while growing their economy. France—more than any other country—has managed to preserve its culture and arts and keep them relevant with its changing economy. It has—to put it crudely—managed to monetize its culture and therefore preserve it in a changing economy. Wouldn’t that be a good model for India to follow? Economists will question France’s taxation policies and lack of reforms, but France is still the mecca for anyone interested in fashion, perfume, arts, jewellery, watches and wine.
Perhaps Bouvet Ladubay should present its wines to Indian economists such as Panagariya to to prod them to ponder on whether economic growth and culture-preservation can happen concomitantly. Then again, Panagariya is a teetotaler.

Shoba Narayan is listening to J’ai Deux Amours by Dee Dee Bridgewater to accompany her sparkling wine.

Wine Palate

Wine wisdom: figure out your palate

The problem with wine-talk is that unless you are in the company of oenophiles, no matter what you say, it sounds pretentious. You can blather on about the bouquet of a good Frescobaldi or the greatness of the 2009 vintage. For the average person you might as well be talking about Gaussian elimination or Markov chains. Terms like bouquet, finish, and terroir mean specific things to experts but are meaningless to the general population. In India, the problem is compounded by the fact that imported wines are stored and transported in shoddy conditions, turning conventional wisdom on its head. Red wines can end up too tannic and white wines too sweet or “baked” as some call it. In addition to figuring out what to drink, in India you have to figure out how to drink your wines.
Consider Chilean Merlot. Most people say that New World wines are young and ought to be drunk fairly quickly. Depends. Some merlots (or shirazes or insert your favourite grape) that are available in India are too raw, too unbalanced. They have to settle down before you can drink them. My brother opens the bottle and puts it in the fridge for a day before actually drinking the wine. My solution has been to decant it for 3 hours; pouring it back into the bottle, and drinking a glass or two the following day, after it has calmed down. Perhaps it is the way these wines are transported and stored, or perhaps it is simply my palate.

Palate is a term that sounds pompous but really isn’t. In fact, it is the simplest way by which you can decide what wines you like. Some of it is logic and some of it is just you. Being vegetarian, my taste veers towards aromatic, dry and off-dry, cool-climate wines. Low alcohol content (under 12%) is nice to have but not always possible, particularly in New World wines. After trying out several, these are my current picks. Bodega Colomé Torrontés, Viogniers (Sula and Four Seasons), Riesling (German or Alsace), Vouvray (Loire Valley), and Pinot Gris (Navarro Vineyards of Mendocino if you can get them). These in my view go well with light vegetarian food. I used to like Gewurztraminer but haven’t had a decent one lately. I think Chardonnays are “blah”, and I haven’t met a Sancerre I haven’t liked, perhaps because its alcohol content hovers around 10%.

The opposite too must be true. If you relish a heavy juicy steak or a rich complex biryani, I imagine that your palate veers towards heavy-bodied French, Italian and Spanish wines made from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tempranillo.

Tolerance for bitterness is an underrated aspect of your palate. If you are one of those who can tolerate karela or bitter gourd and revels in 85% dark chocolate, then it opens up a whole range of wines that have a tinge of bitterness. Italian reds are a start. I drank a wonderful Amarone at a dinner at the ITC Grand Chola’s Italian restaurant in Chennai. It was high in alcohol (14%) but deliciously bitter. Wine wisdom says this bitter tinge is due to the phenols in wines and otherwise moderate people have devoted reams of prose supported by chemical equations to describe exactly why wine becomes bitter (and they say this as if it is a good thing). Most people describe Cabernet as bitter but the Sauvignon rounds it off. Another quixotic phrase is “minerally with hints of asphalt”, which is akin to saying that you are drinking concrete. Somehow, this is viewed as a positive by wine critic Robert Parker and his acolytes. A phrase and type of wine I like is “dry wine”. To me, this means that the wine is not sweet. Then again, I don’t have a sweet tooth and if I had to pick between gulab jamun and bhujia sev, the latter would win each time.

With these parameters, I have figured out my palate. I am a vegetarian who likes medium-dry aromatic wines and can tolerate bitterness. For me, Australian Rieslings, Austrian Grüner Veltliner, fino sherry, and Champagne hit the bullseye every time. Each palate has its quirk that goes against the grain. For me, it is Sauvignon Blanc.

When you tell people you are vegetarian, the first wine they will point you to is Sauvignon Blanc. I like my Sauvignon Blancs floral and aromatic. La Grille Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley was a recent favourite. It used to be available at the Mumbai-based Wine Society of India, a club for oenophiles. Australian and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are too herbaceous in character for me; too grassy; not aromatic enough. With the type of food I have at home—salads, and typical Indian fare—a medium-dry Riesling works really well. I am told that Rieslings from the Finger Lakes in New York, US, are quite wonderful, but they are hard to access in India. The Wine Kart, an online store, sells German Rieslings but they are mostly over Rs.3,000.

Given all these constraints, I have decided to turn to Indian wines. Enough of asking friends to shlepp wine over for you; enough of paying triple the price for a bottle of Yellow Tail that costs $5 (around Rs.315) at Walmart in the US. Home-grown wines may be the solution.
There are several wines that are being talked about in Bangalore. More about that—next week.

Shoba Narayan drinks Viognier and Brut with her adai and avial


My recording at Soundcloud here

Sat, Apr 06 2013. 12 12 AM IST

A very nosy memory
Blending great cognac is all about olfactory memory
Shoba Narayan

Pierrette Trichet, the cellar master of Rémy Martin. Photo: Courtesy Rémy Martin.
What did you drink this morning—coffee or tea? What did your tea smell like? What did your coffee taste like? If you are stymied for words, you are not alone. Humans are very good at remembering and describing what they see but ask them to describe smells and taste and they become quiet. Wine writers and perfume “noses” (professionals who mix and create scents) are exceptions to this rule. They make a living out of discerning and describing smells and tastes. The rest of us merely roll our eyes when they describe, say, the 2009 vintage as smelling of “gooseberries, tar, and burnt leather”. What the heck does burnt leather smell like? The technical term for this is “olfactory memory”, or cataloguing and articulating what your nose smelled.

Pierrette Trichet profile_LR
The cellar master of the cognac house Rémy Martin, Madame Pierrette Trichet, 61, has a magnificent olfactory memory. She was probably born with it but the decade she spent as cellar master probably didn’t hurt either.
For the Louis XIII, Trichet blended 1,200 aged eaux-de-vie—as the distilled wine that eventually becomes cognac is called.
Each of the big four cognac houses do this but they blend about 200, not 1,200 eaux-de-vie. And blending great cognac is all about olfactory memory. Yann Fillioux is the seventh-generation (dynasties don’t just rule Indian politics) master blender of Hennessy. According to the Hennessy website, he meets every morning with his tasting team to choose aged eaux-de-vie—some 125 years old and some a mere 25 years old. He then blends these to create a cognac that epitomizes the house style—year after year. Hennessy has cognacs going back to 1800—the largest stock of old cognacs in the business.
Like a chef, the goal for any cellar master is consistency, usually achieved through a combination of formula and instinct. A blend, for instance, might include 5ml of the 1966, 10ml of the 1993, 3ml of the 1857, 5ml of the 2000 and so on. The problem is that next year, each of these vintages has changed because of the ageing. So you have to taste and jiggle the formula a little bit to achieve the same “house style”. Achieving this has everything to do with scent memory. “Every day, I taste eaux-de-vie. I always try to memorize aromas, to train myself by describing everything that I can recognize,” says Trichet in an email interview.
At every large cognac house, be it Martell (the oldest), Hennessy (the biggest), Rémy Martin (the only one with a woman cellar master) or Courvoisier (loved by rappers), the smelling and tasting begins when the house receives over a thousand new distillations or eau-de-vie nouvelle from various producers in cognac. The tasting panel chooses which of these small producers to buy from and these chosen eaux-de-vie make it to their cellars for double-distillation and ageing. Most cellar masters follow a ritual for tasting.
Hennessy’s Fillioux meets at the same time and the same place with his colleagues. Trichet and her colleagues rinse out their tulip-shaped cognac glasses with eaux-de-vie to erase all odours of the glass or cleaning products. “Once the glass is filled, I like to let the liquid rest for 15 minutes in the glass. I never stir the liquid to protect the aroma balance. Then I start the tasting, first with the nose to discover the first odours and then I take a sip to refine and deepen my aromas’ appreciation.”
At Martell, cellar master Benoit Fils and his team taste about 3,500 eaux-de-vie every year, according to the company website. They also shepherd the cognacs that are ageing in their cellars, deciding—based on smell and taste—whether to change barrels or to stop the ageing by transferring the liquid into a “demijohn”. The whole process resembles the Indian arranged marriage. First you weed out the prospects and choose the ones that make the cut. Then you suss the candidates by throwing them in with family members (or barrels) to see how they age. Then you perform a marriage by mixing the bride and groom. In cognac’s case, the marriage comes from mixing hundreds of eaux-de-vie. Martell’s Fils says cellar masters have to be “visionaries” with respect to predicting how the blend of 200 or 1,200 will turn out.
The most boring part of blending cognac has to do with house style. Each of the cellar masters believes that they are “custodians” of a house style and have to create cognacs that taste the same whether you drink them in China or the US—currently cognac’s biggest markets. The tasting panel is allowed some wiggle room but no imaginative leaps or flights of fancy. Two years ago, when Patrice Pinet, cellar master of Courvoisier, persuaded the house to print the cognac’s age on the bottle, it was considered revolutionary in the business.
Cognac goes well with Asian food, or so Maurice Hennessy, owner of Hennessy, says, and of course he would say that, given that cognac houses are looking at Asian markets beyond China. Hennessy reportedly drinks his cognac with Vietnamese food.
The next time you sit by a fire, pour some cognac into your snifter, light up a cigar, take a sip and enjoy it. But also try to articulate to your partner what it is that you are tasting.
Shoba Narayan likes the ethereal flavours of a Delamain cognac. It irritates her that this one-word description is the best she can do.

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Krsma Estates Sauvignon Blanc


Krsma Estates sent over a sample of their 2012 sauvignon blanc. Produced in Hampi Hills, this wine is not yet available in the market. Its producers, Uma and Krishna Chigurupati were featured in Mint’s power couples issue. In the same issue, I had written about wine and food pairings, which is why– I think– their office wrote and asked if they could send over some wine.

When I first opened the bottle, the wine was a tad too sharp and acidic for my taste. The color was pale to straw colored, typical of a Sauv blanc. It was minerally and had that grassy, herbaceous quality. The problem was that all these flavors stood apart too much. They were not rounded enough. I felt like I should give the bottle a good shake. You know what worked? I opened the bottle, kept it in the frig and tasted a little each day. Still too sharp. But by day 3, the flavors had bloomed and did that little dance that they do. It was a lovely wine. I would open the bottle, and decant for a while (chill if possible in a decanter in the frig) unless you have those fancy chilling wine to the perfect temperature type gadgets, and then drink.

What bothered me was that there was no mention of the alcohol content. I am trying to drink wines below 13% alcohol and the fact that this wasn’t labelled bugged me.

I think this will soon become available in the market. Thank you, Krsma Estates

Wine and Indian food

I have been house-bound these days and have spent a lot of time boning up on an old pursuit: wine.  Reading, talking, listening and sampling.  The amount of material available on the Web is phenomenal; and the amount of wine available at my local Madhuloka is….er… pathetic.  Thank God for kind friends who raid their duty-free shops en route to me.  Here is this week’s column in Mint.

A wine list for ‘malai kofta’ and fish ‘moily’

It is up to Indians to show the wine world how to pair their wines with our food
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First Published: Thu, Feb 14 2013. 09 00 PM IST
Pair Pinot Gris with malai kofta. Photo: Divya Babu/Mint/Location Eros Hotel—Managed by Hilton, New Delhi

Next weekend, the first India Grape Harvest Wine Festival will take place in Nashik, causing wine enthusiasts to sip, swirl and stomp as if there were no tomorrow. Tomorrow is the last day of the All Things Nice Wine Week in Mumbai. Twenty-eight participating restaurants are offering wine at a 30% discount with meals, mostly of the Mediterranean kind, which begs the question: Why not Indian food? And here we go.

Next weekend, the first India Grape Harvest Wine Festival will take place in Nashik, causing wine enthusiasts to sip, swirl and stomp as if there were no tomorrow. Tomorrow is the last day of the All Things Nice Wine Week in Mumbai. Twenty-eight participating restaurants are offering wine at a 30% discount with meals, mostly of the Mediterranean kind, which begs the question: Why not Indian food? And here we go.
Pairing Indian food with wine is iffy and requires imagination. Western cuisine is about extracting flavour from existing ingredients. Indian, and for that matter, most Asian cuisines mask the inherent flavour of the ingredients by adding herbs and spices. The fear is that these spices will overpower the wines. Most of the classic pairings—champagne with caviar; roast lamb with Bordeaux; chèvre with Sancerre; dark chocolate with Cabernet Sauvignon (okay, that last one isn’t classic)—use little or no spices. Hence the stereotype: “Indian food and wine? No way. Swig a beer, instead.”
It is up to Indians to show the wine world how to pair their wines with our food. To put this egregious issue to rest on a bed of lettuce (or scallops, have your pick), here is an authoritative guide of global wines that pair well with Indian dishes—compiled by interviewing numerous sommeliers and wine experts. To ensure utmost objectivity, I have restricted myself only to those wines and cuisines that I like.
German Rieslings, Alsatian Gewurztraminers and rosé wines are the usual suggestions when Western wine writers talk about Indian food. Their crisp acidity cuts through our spices and the touch of sweetness acts as a foil to the heat in our cuisine. Under that broad umbrella, here are some more specifics.
Pinot Gris: A classic pairing is asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Using the same logic, Pinot Gris can be paired with light vegetables in creamy sauces such as malai koftanavratan korma and even palak paneer. Domaine Zind-Humbrecht is a great producer, making biodynamic wines.
Grüner Veltliner: An Austrian wine with a hint of bitterness to it, this can pair well with methi (fenugeek)parathas, Indian greens and tender karela (bitter gourd), all of which also veer towards bitter (using the logic of dessert wines—desserts paired with sweet wines). Or you could do the opposite and pair this wine with Gujarati cuisine (which has a touch of sweetness) or yeasty Kerala appams with their mutton stew.
Muscat: Many grape varieties originated in Ukraine and the Muscat wines of Ukraine and Slovenia have a floral sweetness that makes them a good complement to light south Indian salads such as Karnataka’s famous kosambaris.
Riesling from the Mosel region of Germany: Great pairing for safed maas and other heavy meat dishes with a touch of cream. JJ Prüm and Fritz Haag are good producer choices.
Sancerre: This typically goes well with chèvre or goat cheese. Using the logic of salty cheese with this Loire Valley wine, consider Kashmiri goshtaba or the more subtle haleems. If all else fails, try the ubiquitous salted peanuts with a Sancerre. Or even popcorn. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Italian and Spanish sparkling wines such as Lambrusco, Franciacorta and Cava: They do well with many of our coconut-based coastal dishes. Fish moily (with a touch less of curry leaves and ginger), Konkan fish dishes, all would be beautifully complemented by these bright bubbly wines.
Malbecs: Argentina’s Malbecs are often paired with grilled meats. They would go well with our kebabs, particularly if the chef goes easy on the marinade.
Oaked Chardonnay such as the Montes Alpha from Chile: These would work well with our “barbecued” meats or smoked flavours such as the dungar cooking of Rajasthan.
Italian wines are natural accompaniments to pastas, pizzas, and dare I say, Punjabi food—which shares the tomato, garlic and girth of some Italian cuisines.
Pulaos are less spicy than biryani. When served with dal makhni or meat, they could be similar to the Italian risotto. Using that logic, some of the well-rounded Italian reds with high alcohol levels (over 14%) would stand up to the aromatic pulaos—Chianti, Valpolicella, Amarone. Similarly some Côtes du Rhône blended wines from Crozes Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie will work as well.
Nero d’Avola: A Sicilian red, its lush, rounded flavours will complement bharthas and tikkas. As for chicken tikka masala and the like, lighter wines from the Piedmont, such as Dolcetto and Barbera, or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo would work better than the rugged Barolos and Barbarescos of that region. But who knows? Maybe the heavy northern Italian reds can stand up to rich Punjabi food.
Pinot Noirs: These do well with many of our medium-bodied dishes. Parsi dishes come to mind. They are rich but not chilli-hot. New world Pinot Noirs do better with our foods than the ones from the Loire Valley. New Zealand Pinot Noirs—from Marlborough—or the ones from Willamette Valley, Oregon, have the oomph to stand up to Indian food.
Chilean Sauvignon Blancs: Perfect with light vegetarian dishes, which are not creamy or ultra-hot. The grassy, herbaceous Sauvignon Blanc or the more aromatic Viognier will complement this vegetarian cuisine.
Torres wines: Widely available in India, these go well with fiery Hyderabadi or Chettinad cuisines. Their Viña Esmeralda with its dash of sweet fruitiness is a spectacular combination. Their Gran Sangre de Toro isn’t bad either. Unoaked chardonnays such as Chablis or lighter semillon wines work with spicy Chettinad chicken dishes.
Albariño: This wine from Spain has the dry sweetness and medium acidity that will do well with spicy biryanis. Dry rosé wines also work well with biryanis. Since rosé doesn’t travel well and needs to be drunk young, this is one wine you must buy local. Indian rosé wines from Sula or Big Banyan can be chilled and served with biryanis.
Prosecco, Pinot Grigio, Moscato d’Asti and the citrusy, floral notes of Friuli wines pair well with the spicy fish flavours of Bengali food. What else? Remember that song from DevdasChalak Chalak? What wine do the drunk dancers sing about? “Yeh Madeira, yeh Madeira,” they say. Mustard oil with Madeira? Why ever not?
As for Bordeaux wines, I drink them anytime, paired with cheese from the region.
Shoba Narayan is working her way through Indian dishes paired with Indian wines.


Chateau Haut-Brion

How to sell old wine in new bottles

Indians like irreverent mavericks. We don’t know what to do with the too-polished ones
Shoba Narayan

Prince Robert was in Bangalore to showcase Château Haut-Brion. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.
Prince Robert of Luxembourg was in town the other day to suss out the Indian market and showcase the wines of his prestigious estate, Château Haut-Brion. A courtly, elegant man, he was perfectly polite as he talked about his wines and why India was important to them. “We have had more and more visitors to our estate from India,” he said. “It is the No. 3 country that ‘likes’ us on our Facebook page. Your cuisine is subtle and multilayered like our wines.”
Indian cuisine can be described in many ways but “subtle” is not the first adjective that comes to mind. Japanese cuisine is subtle. Indian cuisine is, well, sensual.
A stream of European vintners are coming through India; a pattern that will only increase as the search for the next big market after Japan and China intensifies. India is a logical choice. It has a young, aspirational population. There is a growing tier of well-travelled, global Indians who demand and consume premier crus and prestige cuvées as a matter of course. They have well-stocked cellars; bring back favoured bottles on annual trips to Europe; have never travelled on a Shatabdi train, or dined at a Moti Mahal. These are the consumers that luxury brands want to reach out to, typically over a private dinner.
The Leela Palace in Bangalore seems to be a favoured venue. At these tastings, brand ambassadors mingle with their guests; talk about their links to India and how they believe it is going to be an important market. There is only one issue: They all sound the same. It is as if one massive PR firm has given them all the same script.
Here is some advice for these fine wine ambassadors: Eschew European reserve and speak from the heart. Speak in lyrical poetry, not in numbers and prose. Don’t be afraid to reveal yourself, kinks and all. Indians like irreverent mavericks. We like a little gravel in our people. We don’t know what to do with the too-polished ones. Mumbaiyya English is a good primer into the way Indians talk and feel. If the mannerly Japanese are about form, if the practical Chinese are about function, Indians are about sentiment. Touch our hearts and you’ve got yourself a convert.
In the last couple of months, two legendary brands, Dom Pérignon and Château Haut-Brion, have held events catering to a small group of people. But here’s the thing. The small group of Indians who can buy a Dom Pérignon or an Haut-Brion will probably buy both. Or else, they will make choices for personal, quixotic reasons. One person may choose a Dom Pérignon because it complements light vegetarian food; because the 1998 Rose is mind-blowing; or because champagne can be sipped through the evening without getting a headache. Another may go for the Haut-Brion because it pairs beautifully with grilled meats; or because it is nuanced, layered and fills the mouth with aroma and flavour. The point is that neither of these brands needs to overtly sell to the Indians they invite to their events. They need to connect with this group in a way that is subtle yet authentic.
Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave for Dom Pérignon, came close in this aspect. Sure, he spouted the party line— “India is so spiritual; so soulful; so profound and layered.” But he was also assertive and unreserved in revealing his pride and vulnerabilities; his philosophies and failings. Maybe winemakers become like the wines they create.
“The 2003 (vintage) is very close to my heart because it was so challenging and risky. I had to grow up for it,” said Geoffroy. “Maybe I am a better person because of that vintage because there is a lot going on and yet you have to remain humble. I like the challenging vintages. Some of the most outstanding vintages for Dom Pérignon have been easy to create but to me, they are not meaningful.”
Vintners have a memory for climate. Mention 2003 and they will all say “scorching heat”. This then is why we pay unseemly sums of money for a bottle of their great vintages—because in the end, we are paying for the marriage of rain and soil; for the fickle muse that is the grapevine; for the earth’s bounties and vagaries; and because, when we sip a great vintage, it feels like we are sipping Mother Nature’s smile.
Prince Robert thinks in vintages; and in locations of wine stores. Mention Brookline, Massachusetts, US, and he can reel off a wine store in the area. His list of favourite vintages will make a wine-lover green with envy: 1945, 1959, 1961, 1975, 1978, 1982 and 1989.
I enjoyed Prince Robert’s company and his wines. But next time, I wish he would reveal to India the young backpacker he once was—the one who travelled through India and Nepal. Indians like people who are edgy and a little off: more Munnabhai than Maharaja. Dom Pérignon’s Geoffroy is hardly a Munnabhai but somehow he has managed to preserve his edge in spite of the rarefied echelons that he travels in.
As for his champagnes, I must admit bias. A recent milestone birthday in my family deposited a tonne of his bottles on my doorstep. They were exquisite.
When she cannot drink Dom Pérignon, Shoba Narayan drinks Cremant de Limoux Brut. Write to her at