Unless you are in the company of oenophiles, the problem with wine talk is that no matter what you say, it sounds pretentious. You can wax eloquent on about the aroma of a good Barolo or the greatness of the 2009 vintage. For the average person you might as well be talking about Einstein’s theory of relativity. Terms like bouquet, mouth feel, tannins, finish, and terroir mean specific things to wine connoisseurs but are meaningless to the general population. How then to decode wine talk?

In India, the problem is compounded by the fact that storage is shoddy.  Imported wines are stored and transported in warehouses that have no concern for temperature-control. Red wines can end up too tannic and white wines too sweet or “baked” as some call it. How then to figure out the original bouquet of the wine?

Consider Chilean Merlot. Most people say that New World wines are young and ought to be drunk fairly quickly. With Indian wines, you would think the same rule applies.  Well, that depends. Some of the blended reds that wineries in India sell are too raw, leaving the sandpaper edge in your tongue. They have to settle down for a few days before you can drink them. Of course, you can decant. But what if you are the only one drinking? I found a solution. You open an Indian wine bottle, pour yourself a glass and leave it in a cool place, in the back of your cupboard (if you don’t own a wine frig). I find that it ages well while in the bottle so that it tastes best three days after opening the cork. My brother opens the bottle and puts it in the fridge for a day before actually drinking the wine. A friend’s solution has been to decant it for 3 hours; pour the (Indian) wine back into the bottle, and drink a glass or two the following day, after it has calmed down. 

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 practical or logical 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. Torrontés, Viogniers, Alsatian Rieslings, Vouvrays from the 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.  Like most people, I am picky about my chardonnays, perhaps the most ubiquitous of white wines.  I liked unoaked Chardonnays. I haven’t met a Chablis or 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. Austrian Gruner Veltliners are a start, as are some Italian reds. 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 had a delicious tinge of bitterness. 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.

Lady communing with the divine at Someshwara temple in Ulsoor, Bangalore

The first time I saw a Kodali Karuppur sari was on Geetha Rao, a textile expert. I met Geetha at the Bangalore Black Tie, where a group of foodies pay to have a structured tasting with paired wines at some of the city’s best restaurants. Geetha’s husband, S.L. Rao, is a renowned economist, but I usually gravitate towards her, mostly because of her lovely saris.

There are women like this everywhere in India. You see them at weddings and events, looking impeccable in their crisp elegant weaves: Ilkal, Tussar, Maheshwari, Jamdani, Kanjeevaram, Venkatagiri, Chanderi, Paithani, or Baluchari. Even the names are so poetic; imagine the product.

Growing up in Chennai, I used to look up at the mother of my close friend, Deepika Radhakrishna, in this way. Sabita aunty—as we called her—ran a boutique called Amrapali. She dressed with flair—usually in a stunning sari with a big red bindi. Visiting her home was like visiting a fashion show: models coming in and out, rolls of textiles with kalamkari and other prints, and Sabita aunty’s hand-drawn designs on what appeared to be wax paper. After my friend passed away, Sabita aunty went on to write two cookbooks, including the award-winning Aharam. But she still retains her passion for Indian textiles.

If the scents we associate with our mothers are vetiver and sandalwood; if the tastes of our childhood are garam masala and amchur in the north and cumin and asafoetida in the south; then what is the touch of our childhood? What is the fabric we associate with our mothers? I would wager that for most of us who are in our 30s and 40s, it would be the soft folds of a sari. When you think of nuzzling into your mother’s lap, what is the fabric that comes to mind?

The garment of my childhood certainly was the sari. All the women I looked up to wore them with style and elegance. There was Prabha Narasimhan, who now runs a Chennai boutique called Amrita. She used to work at Sita Travels and sold me my first airline ticket to America. When she learnt that I was going to cold Boston, she gave me—an unknown, anonymous student—her embroidered Kashmiri overcoat, and explained the finer points of its weave to me. I am sure she has forgotten the gawky student who bought a ticket from her. I haven’t forgotten the lady who gave me my first overcoat. Dancer Anita Ratnam used to appear at the Music Academy wearing stunning jewellery, and unusual saris. On stage sat M.S. Subbulakshmi in her parrot-green Kanjeevaram, her eyes half-closed as she sang to the divine—in bliss.

Geetha Rao in her Kodali Karuppur sari

I am certainly in bliss as I sit in Geetha’s room. It is raining outside and we’ve just had a simple but tasty Madhva lunch of Mysore rasam, sweet potato pachadi (raita), a tamarind-laced dal called Huli Soppu and chapatis glistening with ghee. The taste of the hot rasam lingers as I settle on her bed. She opens her closet. Wow! It is lined with exquisite saris, each on a hanger with a matching blouse. She pulls them out and talks: about the delicacy of kasuti embroidery; about a stunning black Chandrakala sari that is usually given to brides on the Sankranti festival. It is dipped in indigo dye seven times till it looks almost black but isn’t; about how Gujarati bandhani is smaller and more elegant than the Rajasthani bandhani; about the romance in the names of these saris; about the intricacy of the weave of a pure Dhakai Jamdani. She pulls out sari after sari and I am transported to a peaceful place where colour and sensuality is around me and all is well with the world.

Finally, we come to the sari that caught my attention.

Kodali Karuppur is a place near Trichy in Tamil Nadu. According to an article in the Craft Revival Quarterly, these saris flourished under the patronage of the Maratha rulers, who were so taken by the combination of techniques used that they gifted these textiles as part of their khillat, or dresses of honour. The techniques used are—get this— wax-resist hand painting, block printing and intricate weaving. First the weaver weaves the sari using brocade fabric, sometimes with silk thread mixed with the cotton thread. Then he uses block prints on the sari with the block-printed butas or motifs matching exactly with the brocade butas, to give what Reena Agarwal, the author of the article, calls a “tinsel-patterned” effect. Got that? I think what this means is that you have to painstakingly place the printing block exactly over the buta or motif of the brocade so there is no overlap. Now, on top of all this, you do this whole wax-resist thing. Basically, the craftsman paints a design like a floral motif, covers the rest with wax, dyes the fabric using natural dyes that give a rich red tone to the pallu of the sari, and then removes the wax to reveal the background design. At least, that’s what I think.

You know, at this point, I have to throw up my hands and admit defeat. All these techniques are above me and I don’t fully understand them. If you are a textile buff as I am, please visit the Craftrevival.org website and read about the process of production. Better yet, visit the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad where an antique Karuppur sari hangs in full splendour.

There are so many layers to this particular sari that you probably think the final product will be gaudy. It isn’t. Take my word for it.

Shoba Narayan is at Bangalore’s Dastkar Nature Bazaar this weekend, searching for Kodali Karuppur saris, Malkha, and other unusual fabrics. The Dastkar Nature Bazaar is on at the Bangalore Palace grounds till 15 August. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com


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