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

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