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On holiday in India

Recipes from the French Wine Harvest has been on holiday in India for the last three weeks. Croissants and baguettes were swapped for a breakfast of dhosas or idlis. Daubes were replaced by chicken korma or Goan fish curry with delicious relishes. As for wine, somehow that did not seem so essential. Mango juice, a beer or a salt lassi went perfectly with the dishes.

This seems a good moment to republish an article I wrote for an Australian on-line publication after a trip to India in 2012 - hope you enjoy it!

Drinking wine in India

Colour, vibrancy, noise - this is what strikes you when you travel in India.

In the countryside, there are brilliant flashes of pink, red, gold in fields where women in saris till the land, pick potatoes, make bricks by hand and carry huge loads on their heads; animated chatting and selling of wares from lock-ups and stalls in little towns; the persistent honking of horns as cars, idiosyncratically decorated trucks, motorbikes and rickshaws force their way though small lanes crowded with people. There are cows wandering at will, foraging hogs, dogs, the odd camel or bullock cart and cyclists weaving through unconcernedly.

Coming from the grey winter skies of Britain this is decidedly exotic. On your way to a street market in rural Rajasthan, for instance, to buy homegrown cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, turmeric, you may see a jackal slinking into a field of mustard, hear the shrieking of a peacock displaying his tail to a harem of peahens and will certainly be engaged in conversation by locals. You might be surprised, as I was, to see a shop sign reading “English Wine Store” over a small, dilapidated shack.

This turns out to have nothing to do with wine, English or otherwise. It’s a liquor store – hard stuff distilled locally from sugar cane, or cheap brands of whisky and other spirits. Few ordinary people here knew that wine was made from grapes, or that it was not distilled or fortified.

Vines have been planted in some parts of the country, and the wine is widely available in hotel restaurants, but for many Indians wine is a term which simply means alcohol.

Wine importers obviously have an educational job to do. But in big cities things are different. At dinners and tastings in Mombai and Delhi there were knowledgeable collectors, mainly senior people in industry who had been buying big name clarets and burgundies to share with friends. Nihal Kaviratne, CBE, now retired after a distinguished career with Unilever, is the founder of the Bombay branch of the International Wine & Food Society, and is a Chevalier of Burgundy’s Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. He has been laying down great Bordeaux for years. Another connoisseur, Rajiv Kehr, the host of a spectacular dinner in Delhi, explained his love of wine: “It is much more than a drink, in fact it’s a journey encompassing all of one’s senses.”

Top international hotels are making it their business to stage dinners with European menus to showcase their chef’s skills. Typically they feature glamorous ingredients like caviar, foie gras, lobster, duck and venison, matched with fine wines. But what about serving these wines at home, with Indian dishes? Nihal Kaviratne’s wife, Shyama, told me that she has been working on a subtle spicing of crab to pair with her husband’s Meursaults, and others had suggestions of great matches, meat curries from different regions with Rhone wines with plenty of body, and more surprisingly, older Burgundies which have developed spicy flavours.

Both collectors and hotels are up against two problems. Firstly, wine is taxed highly although this does vary from state to state. Secondly, as Yannick Poupon, Chief Operating Officer of the Taj hotel group told me, you can ship fine wines from abroad but you can’t know how long they may sit on a hot dockside before delivery. Wine is often in a disappointing condition - not a good way to introduce people to an expensive luxury.

Sanjay Menon is one of the movers and shakers of the Indian wine world. Small and dynamic, he fizzes with enthusiasm; He has built up a family business that originally sold liquor, into one which imports and distributes foreign wines; with his own bonded warehouse he ensures they arrive on the table in prime condition. He shares his passion and impressive knowledge by regularly organizing wine events which have a reputation for being entertaining as well as a way of learning.

Sommelier India is India’s only homegrown wine magazine. It is widely distributed in India and the Indian Diaspora around the world via print and digital. “Our typical reader is the bon vivant consumer with disposable income, but we are also read by the wine and hospitality trade, and count individual students and educational institutions among our subscribers” says its publisher, Reva Singh. “Wine consumption is increasing at all levels but not at the same pace. The high cost of wine, poor retail distribution and no wine drinking tradition and awareness of wine as a beverage distinct from hard liquor are some of the reasons.”

One young woman attending a Masterclass in Mumbai on the wines of the Cote d’Or said she had always found the subject of wine intimidating – she had come to learn how to approach it. Another said that young aspirational couples see wine as a lifestyle thing, involving buying the right glasses and china.

Priyanka Dhar doesn’t seem to be daunted by these challenges. After doing a B.Tech in Food Engineering and Technology in Mumbai, she headed to UC Davis to do a Masters in Viticulture and Enology. Internships at Gallo, the Hospices de Beaune, Louis Royer in Cognac followed.

“ The most daunting experience was when I entered the winery in Beaune and realized what a barrier not speaking French was to communicating with the staff – luckily, playing charades as a child helped! I learnt that mutual passion and a desire to exchange information is more important. When you sit exhausted after a hard working day during harvest, you don’t really need words. I have met so many accomplished people and had conversations I will always cherish. Experiences such as tasting with Michel Troigros (three Michelin stars chef), tasting a 1945 La Tache at DRC, interacting with Jean Francois from barrel makers Francois Freres, tasting with the winemaker at Clos des Lambrays, visiting Ch. Margaux and exploring Bordeaux, touring round the distilleries in Cognac, have all been incredible”.

New Zealand is her next destination. She is just finishing her thesis and is already writing for Sommelier. She says her ambition is to make good wine that is affordable - “ The kind of bottle that is a comfort after a hard day but also special enough to be shared for an occasion.”

I can’t help feeling Priyanka will be very much part of the Indian wine scene in the future. Her energy and enthusiasm is just what is needed to get other young people into wine.

On a visit to the historic Agra fort, off a large open courtyard you can see one of the rooms designed for the Maharana’s relaxation and pleasure. It is open to the cooling breezes, and decorated with intricate inlay patterns using semi-precious stones. Conveniently placed by the low seats are elegantly engraved glass wine carafes and delicate glasses. So India isn’t such a new market for wine, after all. But now it is not just for the elite, and young professionals are finding that wine can be fun.

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