Can you smell and taste through cyberspace?

Technology has conquered two of the five senses: sound and sight. What about the other three?

How do you describe a wine in words?
Shoba Narayan suggests we reach into our own heritage: A Chenin blanc could be called “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo”

The killer app, at least in the fields of wine, perfume, cheese, or anything that relies on olfactory and gustatory sensations, will have nothing to do with curing male baldness. The killer app for wine and perfume will be the ability to transport scent and taste through cyberspace. If you could click on a wine bottle that is displayed on your computer and smell the aroma of the wine it contains, all the wine descriptions that we struggle to come up with will be rendered useless in an instant.

There are some things that words have trouble conveying. What Arthur Schopenhauer said about “the inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable”, could well apply to the scent and taste of an aged Pinot Noir; complex fragrances, be it from Roja Dove, Byredo or Dior; unpasteurized cheeses; or to come back to Schopenhauer’s quote, the sound of the children’s choir at an old church in Goa at dusk. These are things that have to be experienced in person. When you try to convey the experience to someone who wasn’t there, you grasp unsuccessfully at words.

As a species, we have gotten very good at describing what we see, but even after 100,000 years of practice, we haven’t come up with the proper way to communicate things that we experience through our other senses. Music-streaming apps have simplified the audio part of it. Nowadays, if we want to share with friends abroad the ecstasy of listening to Mukhtiyar Ali’s Sufi music, we simply send them a YouTube, SoundCloud or Spotify link. That hasn’t happened for taste and smell. How do you convey the vibrant masculinity of a Barolo? Even saying this sounds pretentious and sexist.

This, then, is the conundrum for wine lovers: How do you convey the taste of a favourite wine to a friend who lives far away? For now, words, feeble as they are, will have to do. And they aren’t doing their job well at all; witness the finger-pointing and controversy over wine terms.

The problem gets worse because words frame and manipulate the wine-drinking experience, as Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at Stanford University’s graduate school of business in the US, knows very well. Prof. Shiv has conducted numerous studies on how descriptions affect our experience of the wine. In one famous study, he hooked up subjects to an MRI machine and gave them some wine to drink (now that’s a study I would like to participate in). When he told them that the wine was expensive, the pleasure receptors of the brain lit up. The subjects didn’t merely think that they enjoyed the expensive wine more; their bodies and brains behaved as if they did. To quote the paper, “Our results show that increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.” The next time you pour a friend a glass of red wine, tell her that it is a Château Margaux. The simple statement will enhance her pleasure at having it.

How then to describe wine? Two columnists have come up with solutions and written books in the process. The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague, known for her no-nonsense approach to wine, says you need but five words to describe all wines: acidity, aroma, balance, structure and texture. Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer says something similar but uses seven words: insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. While I love Teague’s light-hearted columns, her words don’t help me very much. Neither do Kramer’s. They are far too broad to be useful.

// have a few terms that I use to jog my scent and taste memory with respect to wines. Herbaceous (like Indian gooseberry, or amla), jammy (best described by a Tamil phrase, kozha-kozha) and minerally (like drinking water from a copper pot), among others.

But minerally too is a description that has come under attack. In an article published in the Australian Journal Of Grape And Wine Research in June 2013, titled “Exploring Minerality Of Burgundy Chardonnay Wines”, three scientists from the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, France, studied how “wine experts conceptualize minerality and to explore whether they can judge wine minerality in a consensual way.” They concluded, “Wine experts showed strong disagreement in their minerality judgements…”

So if nobody agrees on anything, what are we to do? Are words superfluous in the wine universe? How can we convey the pleasures of a particular bottle of wine?

One sommelier quoted in Bianca Bosker’s 29 June article in The New Yorker, “Is There A Better Way To Talk About Wine?”, describes a Barolo as tasting like a “male ballet dancer”; a “Baryshnikov in a glass”, as the writer says.

If you open this door, India has oodles of poetic descriptions to fit our wines. The proverbial Elizabeth aunty, whose home-made wines are famous all over Kottayam, could describe a Malbec as having the “balance and spikiness of very good Navara (or, more correctly, Njavara rice”. Debashish babu of Kolkata could describe a particular Cabernet Sauvignon as “flabby—like the Brahmaputra in spate”. Or you could sip a Chenin blanc and say, “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo.”

We Indians have tasted wines for over 5,000 years. According to K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Sita promised to pour 1,000 jars of wine into the river Ganga in the hope of safe passage back when their exile ended. When they returned, Ram gave her maireya, a spiced wine (a ghastly concoction according to me). Their entire city was reeling with drunken orgies. Presumably, a few of the citizens described the wines that they tasted to their neighbours.

We need to reach into our history, heritage and local vocabulary to describe wines in a way that resonates and makes sense to us. Goa, with its prodigious practice in the art of living, would be a good place to start.

This is the second in a two-part series on wine tasting. Shoba Narayan didn’t know that Kinvah, a local wine brand, was named after a festive drink in the Mauryan era. She tweets at @shobanarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Gifts 2014

This could have easily been a photo feature.

The best gifting ideas from 2014

A list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear for Christmas
Shoba Narayan

It is just before Christmas. You are probably in the throes of figuring out what to buy for family, friends and co-workers. Here is a list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear. The logic of choosing these objects was simply this: I saw them during the course of this past year and they stuck in my head—because they are unique, innovatively designed, and beautiful.

Perrin Paris: Glove Clutch Eiffel How many of us wrap our hands around a clutch? Now imagine if we could slip our hands into a glove-clutch. I saw this on Instagram and wanted it instantly. The Perrin Paris glove clutch has turned the hand into an ornament. Prices start at $1,850 (around Rs.1.17 lakh).
The Perrin Paris glove clutch;

Sophie Hulme box tote in raspberry Because it has cute animal eyes on it. At $700 a bag, it is reasonably priced compared to what you have to shell out for, say, Dior’s stunning Be Dior Flap bag, which costs about $4,400; or LVMH’s Capucines bag, without the littered logo thankfully, that costs $5,600.


Dibbern China, Black Forest pattern, designed by Bodo Sperlein Dibbern China by Bodo Sperlein I saw this collection at the home of a woman who is part of my book club. It has haunted me since. Of course, at €28 (around Rs.2,200) a teacup, it is likely to remain in my dreams. But what a collection! German precision mixed with Japanese minimalism and a bit of Fornasetti’s whimsy.


Lee Broom’s light bulbs Cut lead crystal bulbs by Lee Broom I saw these light bulbs in a magazine and loved them. They are made of cut lead crystal and the beauty is that you can do away with those ugly lamp shades that we use to hide incandescent bulbs at homes. These are perfect for India because all you need to clean is just the bulb itself. I thought they were made by designer Tom Dixon, but they are not. I discovered the name of the designer by typing in “crystal light bulbs” on the Internet. Lee Broom, take a bow. They are priced at £109 (around Rs.10,900) each.


Akris I don’t own anything by Akris. I don’t know anyone who wears Akris. Actually, not true. I know of a Baltimore, US, based CEO of an Indian pharma company who wears Akris. But I wish I lived in colder climes so I could wear their winter coats. Their summer line doesn’t bust my cockles, but fittingly for a Swiss company, they know their wool. Just buy one of their wool coats and you can very well wear rags inside. You won’t take off the coat and nobody will have eyes for anything else.


Fountain pens I love fountain pens. I own a Ratnam pen, a Lamy and a Parker Sonnet, all gifts. Were I to buy one, I would buy the Monteverde, because it is black, sleek and costs Rs.5,600 at William Penn—a far cry from the Rs.100 Camlin pen I used to write with but cheaper than the cult retractable Pilot fountain pen which retails at around Rs.12,000 on

Champ de Rêves pinot noir 2011 A bottle of Champ de Reves pinot noir 2011 I bought this at a wine store in Washington, DC because the winemaker had signed it. At $45 for a bottle, it is a luscious aromatic wine, particularly if you are one of those who was charmed by that famous monologue in the film, Sideways, about the “haunting” primitive beauty of a good pinot. This winery makes only one type of wine—pinot noir—and they make it well. Eric Johannsen, I have a bottle signed by you and it’s a keeper.

F Pettinaroli, Milano If I lived in Europe I would be writing these words on Pettinaroli’s papers. I tried ordering their Mignon organizers online and had a devil of a time. I satisfied myself with a Moleskine and our own Rubberband Paint Box series notebooks instead. and

Javadhu-scented powder I bought this powder at the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Kumbakonam. It is made in a small town called Mukkudal in Tamil Nadu. It retails in colourfully packaged 5g bottles for the magnificent sum of Rs.55 each. If you are done with khus, vetiver and rose, try javadhu.


Coloured gems and jewellery The Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring Bulgari, Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels, you name it. They are selling jewellery that would match the jewel tones of our Kanjeevarams and Banarasi weaves nicely. Maybe start with a Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring.



Happy shopping!

Shoba Narayan plans to buy a lovely teapot this Christmas season. Suggestions are welcome. Write to her at

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
Shoba Narayan Mail Me

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