I may have already stirred up a hornet’s nest with the title! With only 4% of Californian wine production, Napa provided 27% of economic impact. One of the smallest ‘world class’ wine regions of the world, Napa is 8 kms broad and 48 kms long and around 58 kms from the coast. The highest vineyard areas like the Howell Mountain are around 750m above sea level; however 85% of the plantation is on the valley floor. 45000 acres in all which is 1/6th of that of Bordeaux! The tipping point for the Napa or the American wine industry came in with one historic event on 24th May 1976 wherein Californian reds and whites were pitched against top Bordeaux and Burgundy wines and the American trounced in both reds and whites; Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the Red and Chateau Montelena with its Chardonnay. I was fortunate to partake in their 40th anniversary celebration week, of course with tasting of their winner blend.
What makes Napa Special?
Cabernet Sauvignon it is, Cabernet forms 12% of California’s production but 40% of Napa’s and yielding 55% revenues. The others are Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Petite-Sirah, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir. Needless to say the soils and the diversity play a role in the final nuance of the wines, it is also the weather. Napa has a Mediterranean climate, less than 2% of the world land mass has it where most of the rain occurs in winter giving it a dry warm growing season with diurnal temperature shifts leading to big and bold grapes. After all of these nature’s endowments the onus thoroughly lies on the keeper’s of the industry to come together make wine which is consistent and high in quality and Napa vintners are just managing to do that. Lastly, the role of wine tourism and hospitality in the regions as a subset of marketing can’t be ignored one bit. As Robert Mondavi once said, ‘We want to raise the art of living well.’ Try booking a room in Napa and you shall know.
Napa Valley was the first AVA to be recognized in California in 1981 and since then 16 nested AVAs have been identified. The Northern most Calistoga, Diamond and Spring mountain districts and the Howell mountains, Rutherford, Oakville and St Helena on the valley floor and Chiles valley district up in the Vaca ranges. And further South are the Yountville, Stag’s Leap District and the Oak Knoll regions. The Mt Vedeer, Atlas Peak lie in the Mayacamas and the Vaca ranges respectively. Coombvilles, Tiny Wild Horse Valley and Los Carneros lie in the southern reaches, the Carneros regions also extends in to Sonoma and is known for its Pinot Noirs due to the Maritime influence. The AVAs define regions but unlike the European PDO’s they give a free hand to the winery to express creativity and experiment. For instance The Paraduxx, a Zinfandel blend in 1994 from Duckhorn vineyards a Merlot powerhouse created quite a stir. Proprietary red wine they call it.
150 years of Napa Valley
Napa just like Sonoma was established much later than its southern Californian neighbours. George Yount, founder of the Yountville a town now in Napa city was the first to plant commercial vineyards in late 1830s, It was only after the independence of California from Mexico in 1850 and the Gold Rush during the same period that saw San Francisco’s population surge from a meager 200 in 1846 to 36000 by 1852 thus bringing in wine know-how. The first renaissance came when the vintners got Vitis vinifera vines in the 1860s, until then they were mission vines used by missionaries to make wine for the church. Charles Krug opened the first commercial winery in 1861; the same was bought by the Mondavi family in 1943. The rail connection then helped Napa ship wines out to Francisco and help get tourists to Napa. You must have heard of Napa Valley wine train as a must do when in Napa!! The industry prospered and evolved. Gustave Niebaum a wealthy Finnish trader in 1879 opened Inglenook a French Chateau style winery and was the first to sell wine in bottles. Inglenook wines attracted global attention and put Napa on the global map for the first time. The same era Crabb planted 400 grape varieties in the famous To Kalon (means ‘the beautiful’ in Greek) vineyards, today parts of the same are owned by Robert Mondavi winery, Opus One and a wine grower Andy Beckstoffer.
Phylloxera, Earthquake, the Volstead act, the great depression, world war …..
First phylloxera decimated Napa completely by the 1890s and any hope of recovery was only thrashed by the San Francisco earthquake which destroyed 30 Mn gallons of wine and then the Volstead act eased the last nail in the coffin , brought in the American prohibition which lasted till 1933. The convalescence was during depression and then the world war kept Napa bed-ridden. During this time some wine cos continued the show some with Wine Bricks during prohibition and some by pioneering initiatives post repeal. Mondavi, George Latour of Beaulieu vineyards and John Daniel of Inglenook led the pack as they formed the Napa Valley association in 1944.
Mondavi, Judgment of Paris ……
In 1965 Robert Mondavi moved away from the family biz to start his own the Robert Mondavi winery in Oakville and ever since he made attention grabbing wines and moreover his marketing techniques, his cellar door hospitality etc made Mondavi the face of California. It only took the aforementioned tasting in Paris also made into a movie, the Bottle Shock to drive home the point for Napa. There has been no looking back for Napa ever since as they stand at over 500 wineries most of which are family owned and producing fewer than 10000 cases per annum.
Napa is an hour’s drive up north from San Francisco and if you are an oenophile then you better not miss it and the other way of looking at it as American political commentator and comedian Bill Maher puts it ‘New Rule: The Napa Valley is Disneyland for alcoholics. Be honest, you're not visiting wineries in four days because you're an oenophile, you're doing it because you're a drunk. It's the only place in America where you can pass out in a stranger's house and it's okay, because it's a B&B and you paid for it.’
‘All the Gold in California ‘ sang the Gatlin bros in 1979, it was the time when American wines were seeing a renaissance and garnering global confidence with California leading the way just like it does today. With 90% of US wine production and 90% of US wine exports California is a goldmine contributing over $25 bn in retail sales in the US only, whilst capturing a 60% market share which include foreign and other domestic wines.
California – Back in time.
With 49 of 58 counties growing grapes, 231000 hectares of vineyards, 4100 wineries, wine is certainly a statewide industry for California. It all started in the 1700s when the Spanish missionaries began growing grapes and making wines for religious services in Southern California and slowly it stretched along the coast northwards till Sonoma. In the 1830’s first Sonoma and then Napa, two top regions of the US wine scene began making wines. 1857 saw the opening of Beuna Vista in Sonoma and 1861 Charles Krug opened the first commercial winery in Napa. The historic Gold rush led to a 150% growth in vineyard area , it was a result of immigration which in turn got in wine expertise. America was drinking all the way to the 1900’s until prohibition struck and California lost 94% of its vineyards.
Resurrection began in 1933 post repeal and E&J Gallo, the world’s largest winery today set shop then. The next few decades the industry limped but moved up. Only in the 60’s that it gathered pace as stalwarts like Robert Mondavi showed confidence in the industry and opened a winery in Napa, the first major one to open post prohibition. He led by example and endeavored to name wines by grape varietals which became a new world norm and his oaked Sauvignon blanc which he called the Fume Blanc (smoked white) became synonymous for a Sauvignon.
Quality wine making had arrived in California and it showed in the momentous ‘Judgment of Paris’. The increased demand 1980s and 90s saw push for quality and of course the number of wineries grew at a rapid pace. In a bid to take control the US government demarcated 50 areas as American Viticultural Area (AVA) based on growing conditions, soil and history. Today there are around 230 AVA’s in the US and around 136 in California. The turn of the millennium saw mushrooming of wineries, from 1000 in late nineties to around 4100 as of today in California and it produces 250 million 9 liter cases of wine.
California – Geography
With a 1300 km coastline, California boasts of one of the longest coastlines of the world adjacent to a wine growing region. This proximity to the sea is what makes the region special. The cool oceanic breeze helps to cool the inland regions and this influence can well be seen over 25 kms inland, as result the nights are cool and the morning warm thus extending the ripening seasons and yielding good quality fruit. The warm inland air meeting the ocean breeze is also responsible for the fog which covers many of the regions including the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Broadly California is divided into 6 macro-growing regions and they are further broken up into AVAs. Below are the 6 regions with some popular AVA’s they comprise
North Coast (54 AVAs)
Mendocino County, Los Carneros, Napa Valley (18 AVAs), Sonoma County (18 AVAs)
Central Coast (41 AVAs)
Livermore Valley, Paso Robles, San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara (of Sideways fame), San Francisco Bay
Southern California (11 AVAs)
Los Angeles, San Diego, Temecula, Malibu Coast
Inland Valleys (18 AVAs)
Lodi the most famous of the regions and is the fastest growing in the state. It is known for its Zinfandel.
Sierra Foothills (6 AVAs)
Situated inland the region was the epicenter of the Gold Rush. The El Dorado county is known for its Old Vine Zinfandel.
The northern most region, home to the ‘Lost Coast’. Manton Valley is one of the better known sub-areas.
Wine styles and grapes
California is endowed with 2800 different soil types and varied geography comprising mountains, valleys, deserts, and coasts, and this allows a myriad grape varieties and wine styles. California grows around 110 different grape varieties. In reds Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir lead the pack with Zinfandel being their signature red. In white the kind of whites, Chardonnay rules the roost followed by a surprise, Pinot Grigio and then the Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling and Moscato are gaining feet well too. If you were to stereotype Californian wines, they stand for big and bold reds, opulent and tropical whites and lush and perfumed roses.
California is the heart of America’s wine, so if you are anywhere in California you know you are close to wines. I was one of the 21 million tourists who visit Californian wine country each year, I ended up Happy High. As late Mr. Robert Mondavi declared, ‘Wine has been a part of civilized life for some seven thousand years. It is the only beverage that feeds the body, soul and spirit of man and at the same time stimulates the mind.’
With Thailand comes to mind beers; Singha and Chang. Did you know that there is a wine culture that began to emerge in Thailand at the turn of the millennium!! And at the forefront of this wine movement is Siam Winery which was found in 1986 by Late Chalerm Yoovidhya. The winery is located 30 miles south of Bangkok and they began with Spy a wine based cooler to kickstart the culture and to familiarize the Thai population who were happy with their beer and their local rice based wine/beer like drink Sato. Siam Winery moved to more serious wine when they started Monsoon Valley wines in 2002 and set-up their vineyards 2 hrs south of their winery in the seaside town of Hua Hin. They currently have around 300 acres planted in there.
Located at 12.5 N, Thailand on paper just like India doesn’t fall in the 30-50 degree belt making it a no-go zone for grape cultivation! These are as they call it new- latitude wines and they are adapting with late ripening, high acid grape varieties which can brave the sun and still shine bright in the bottle. In whites the Siam winery does Colombard, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Muscat and in reds they do Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese and Dornfelder. They even use local varieties like Pokdum and Malaga blanc and have created hybrids like the very inky Rondo which dyes your teeth but is wonderfully refreshing.
Siam winery’s premium wine brand Monsoon Valley is run by German Winemaker Kathrin Puff and assisted by Suppached Sasomsin from Thailand who had trained to be a winemaker in France. Suppached led us through a tasting of various varietals from different barrels, barriques and tanks. ‘At Siam we are experimenting and trying to get the best out of what our land has to offer. We export to over 12 countries and people are slowly taking acceptance to our wine which is evident in the honors we are receiving at international wine competitions. The climate here many a times can let you down with ph levels, ripening etc and hence we blend our grapes to showcase great wines. We tasted the crisp Columbard, an aromatic rose, a toasty Shiraz from the casks and many more varietals under trials. The Monsoon Valley has their Classic, Premium and Flagship wines which include Still Sparkling and Fortifies wines.
Our winery tour replete with tastings and a walk around lasted about two hours and it would be a more fruitful visit during harvest time, January- March where one can see the entire winemaking process. They also host vineyard tours in Hua Hin which I understood are touristier with great views from the deck, a Thai restaurant, Elephant rides and more. We couldn’t visit it due to paucity of time. Next time the Hua Hin vineyards and their Chaoya Phrya floating vineyards are on cards!
Siam winery not only does local wines but is also a major bottler and importer of various international wines from across the globe. We are glad our first tryst with Thai wines began with such an iconic brand and we hope to see them in India soon, given that India loves their green and red curries. One last trivia to surprise you, we certainly were, the energy drink Red Bull was also founded by the man who founded the Siam winery!
To Thai Wines… Chiyo!!
GruVee as we discussed earlier is the face of the Austrian wine industry however this is where their wine story begins and leads us into some myriad and some surprising finds in the wine hinterlands of Austria. Form Weinviertel in the North to Steiermark or Styria in the south a lot of grape varieties are certainly making Austria proud. And yes, Vienna the capital of the country is the only world capital to produce significant quantities wine within city limits. Look for the Viennese blend Gemistcher Satz, a blend of grape grown within the regions. Now let’s take a brief account of popular wines from Austria
Whites: (% of total vineyard area)
Riesling (4.1%): Regions: Danube, Niederosterreich
Austria alongside France and Germany are known for its perfumed and terroir driven wines. The late ripening variety gets help from warm currents from the Pannonian plateau to the east which helps extend the ripening season giving the grapes optimum sugar and phenolic ripeness. Kamptal, Kremstal and Traisental are the DAC’s famed for the variety.
The Happy High Picks:
Malat, Steinbuhel, 2013 Kremstal DAC
Topf, Heilgenstein, 2013, Kamptal DAC Reserve
Preiss, Pletzengraben, 2014, Traisental DAC
Hajszan Neumann, Steinberg, 2013, Wien ( Vienna)
Weissburgunder /Pinot Blanc (4.3%):
A grape which originated in France and is one the noble variety in Alsace is a very easy drinking variety with refreshing acidity with green fruit and floral notes. Was often mistook as a chardonnay in vineyards, this is grape is taken most seriously in Austria where it can make some dry with depth and some luscious botrytis affected sweet wines.
The Happy High Picks:
Zillinger Johannes, Hohes Eck, 2013 Weinviertel DAC
Waldschutz, Schaflerberg, 2014 Wagram Reserve
Christ, Der Vollmodwein, 2014, Wien (Vienna)
Morillon/ Chardonnay (3.1%) Regions: Steiermark (Styria) and Northern Burgenland
Chardonnay requires no introduction and the adaptability of the grape is a phenomenon. Chardonnay grows across the wine regions and makes both light and crisp to heavy oaked styles of wine. It is called Morillon in Styria.
The Happy High Picks:
Hans Moser, 2012 Leithaberg DAC
Tement, Zieregg, 2005, Sussteiermark (South Styria) Reserve
Manuel Nossing, 2013, Wien Reserve
Sauvignon Blanc (2 %) Region: Steiermark
After France and New Zealand this grape has travelled a bit and showing promise in some of its settlements like Chile and even India. I was surprised to see this grape here in the Southern Styria in its juicy and even oaked avatar.
The Happy High Picks:
Sattlerhof, Kranachberg, 2012 Sudsteiermark
Seher, 2014, Weinviertel DAC
Blauer Wildbacher (1.0 %) Region: Steiermark
This is a Red variety which is known for ‘Schilcher’ wines, rose wine from Steiermark known for its grassy and spicy notes with a long finish. It also is used to make Icewines. The next time you Schilcher you know that it will leave your palate lingering with a Raspberry finish….
The Happy High Picks:
Langmann, 2014 Weststeiermark
Jobstl, Altes Weingarten, 2014 Weststeiermark
St Laurent (1.7%) Region: Thermenregion and Northern Burgenland
St Laurent or Sankt laurent produces medium to full bodied wines worthy of aging. In some cases it sees oak adding more complexity to the dark Cherry profile and sweet spice profile of the wine.
The Happy High Picks:
Jonhanneshof Reinisch, 2013, Thermenregion
Schneider, 2012, Thermenregion Reserve
Zwiegelt (14.1%) Regions: Caruntum, Neusiedlersee
This is my favourite of the reds and the most planted red variety in Austria. Created by Dr Fritz Zweigelt, it was created in 1922 and is a cross between Blaufrankisch and St Laurent. It makes fruity light to barrique-aging worthy wines. It is also found in Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The Happy High Picks:
Christian Fischer, Gradenthal, 2011, Thermenregion
Karl Brindlmayr, 2011, Niederosterreich Reserve
Blaufrankisch (7%) Region: North and Mid Burgenland, Eastern Niederosterreich
Another powerhouse grape which originated in Austria, I am yet to come to terms with it due to the spectrum of styles I tasted only very few of which I liked.
The Happy High Picks:
Triebaumer Ernst, Meriental, 2011, Burgenland
Bauer Poltl, Altes Weingebirge, 2011, Burgenland
Spatburgunder (1.4 %) Regions: Red wine growing regions
Pinot Noir or Spatburgunder happily grows in the 48 degree latitudinal belt of Austria making refreshing reds to some barrel aged elixirs.
The Happy High Picks:
Uibel, End des Berges 2010 Weinviertel Reserve
Bauer Anton, Feuersbrunn, 2012, Wagram Reserve
Lastly the Austrian wine scene is incomplete without the tasting of its illustrious sweet wines. Types of sweet wines being Noble Rot or Botrytis wines most popular from the banks of the Neusiedlersee, Eiswein made from frozen grapes and Schilfwein or straw wine made by drying grapes for a minimum of 4 months. Mukatel Ottonel, Welschriesling (WR) , Weissburgunder( WB) and Traminer are some popular grape varieties used for the same.
The Happy High Picks:
Heidi Schrock, Spatlese, WR & WB, 2013 Burgenland
Haider, TrockenBeerenauslese, WR & WB, 2012, Burgenland
Ernst Triebaumer, Eiswein, Blend, 2012, Burgenland
Angerhof Tschida, Schilfwein, Muskat Ottonel, 2009 Burgenland
Understanding the wine label is more than half the battle won, the other half is more enjoyable; the drinking or to be polite; tasting; at least in the professional scene. When we look at the former, the battle if often attributed to the old world wine making countries , France, Germany, Austria to name a few. Why? Because with centuries of wine making experience they know what plot is best for what grape, they have strong laws governing their viticultural and vinification process etc and all of this is manifested on the label with a few terms, it is given that people would know given their legacy, if not one ought to learn it. Nonetheless with wine going international the big guns are making amends to make their labels more approachable whilst sticking to their regulations. The Austrian wine legacy began in 1 BC when the Romans began their plantations and with those many years of wine making behind them they too have some regulations. Let’s look at pointers to look for on a label to make our Austrian Wine shopping easy
Regions and DAC(Districtus Austria Controlattus)
Quality wines from Austria come from grapes grown in one of the 25 specific wine growing regions in Austria of which 9 are generic winemaking areas and 16 specific. Again of the 16 we have 9 DACs, DAC is the highest classification and when on the label refer to region typical wines. The 9 Austrian DACs are Kremstal, Kamptal, Traisental, Weinviertal, Weiner Gemischter Satz, Neusiedlersee, Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland and Eisenburg. Spot these on the label!
Based on the sugar content of the grape when harvested, quality wines are classified into the following in an ascending order of sweetness:
Kabinett (dry wine)
Spatlese (dry or sweet wine)
Auslese (dry or sweet wine)
Beerenauslese (Sweet wines here on)
The sweetness in the final wine is indicated by use of terms as below:
Halbtrocken- Off dry
Lieblich- Medium sweet
For those of you who prefer organic and environmentally sustainable produce, look for the below logo on the bottle.
Other labeling terms
Reserve: These wine are rested for at least a year before release, have more than 13% alcohol and can take in oak and botrytis flavors.
Smaragd, Fiederspiel, Steinfeder : Restricted to the area of Wachau, these were coined when there no classification or wines. These terms again indicate the ripeness of the grape when harvested and ultimately shows in the final wine. Steinfeder is the lightest and Smaragd is the heaviest.
Lastly the most important and the easiest way to identify a quality Austrian wine is the Banderole in the form of their national flag placed on the top of the closure or on the bottle with the registered producer number.
My tryst with Gruner Veltliner fondly called GruVee began in 2008 while I was working in beverages in London; it was supposed to be the next big thing to happen after Pinot Grigio in the market then. I moved to India shortly after and GruVee had not reached the Indian shores, sometime in 2011 is when we had the Schloss Gobelsburger Gruner Veltliner. I have been happily using the wine for many of my tastings since however anything beyond 2 years old was a strict no-no, until the Austrian wine Summit 2015 happened for us. I was in Austria exploring its wines and also tasted a GruVee from 1983.
Gruner Veltliner is a white grape variety; a factor that one cannot miss about this grape is its bracing acidity. A high yielding variety it can be spicy and peppery or can be laden with stone fruits depending from where it comes from. It is known to come from North-east and east of Austria, generic regions being the Niederosterreich (Lower Austria) and Burgenland. 29.5% of Austria’s vineyard area is planted with Gruvee, 13518 hectares to be precise a big cut given a total of 35 grape varieties, 22 white and 13 red are used to make quality wines in the country. Niederosterreich is the most important regions for the grape and around 44% of the area has GruVee vines. Specific regions within Lower Austria are Traisental, Kremstal, Weinviertel, Wien (Vienna), Wachau, Wagram and Kamptal, the last one is where the Schloss Gobelsburger available in the country comes from. Weinvartel the northern most wine growing area is known for the most peppery and sharp Gruners.
GruVees could either be in its ‘Klassik’ version showing pure fruit and a minimum of 12% alcohol or it could be a ‘Reserve’ showing subtle botrytis or oak notes in addition and contains a minimum of 13 % alcohol. Both these versions come dry with a maximum of 6 grams/litre of sugar. If a mention of botrytis (a fungus which concentrates grape sugars and affects taste) did not ring a bell yet, it should have or perhaps you knew it already! Botrytis and dry white wines are not often spoken of in the same breath as the former is associated with sweet wines; however most of GruVee areas are located near tributaries of the Danube and are thus prone to Botrytis. Vineyard management is done to avoid growth for dry wine making however in reserve wines some of it is allowed to grow for added complexity.
Lastly the epic tasting of 100 wines by over 150 wine professionals from across the globe at the Palais Niederosterreich, Vienna was an eye-opener for me; needless to say I was a part of the tasting. We tasted wines from 2014 all the way back to 1983 and it was quite overwhelming. Based on the tasting, below is a list of wines which stood out for your perusal.
2014 Stift Gottweig, Gottweiger Berg
2012 Josef Schmid GMBH, Kremser Gebling, Reserve
1985 MantlerHof, Gedersdorf (Herbacoeus, Mineral, medium body, high acidity)
2013 Hirtzberger, Federspiel
2012 Pichler Krutzler, Durnsteiner Wnderberg
2010 Tegernseerhof, Smaragd
2014 Bauer Norbert, Diermannsee
2013 Pfaffl, Grossebersdorfer Kirchenberg, Reserve
1983 Malteser Ritterorden, Hundschupfen ( Pale gold, feminine, elegant incredible for its age)
2014 Kirchmayr, Strasser Stangl
2013, Topf, Heiligenstein, Reserve
2010 Topf Johann, Ofenberg, Reserve
2014 Neumayer, Engelberg
2013 Siedler, Reserve
2013 Huber, reserve
2014 Josef Bauer
2013 Leth, Gigama, reserve
2012 Wimmer Czerny , Unfiltered
Austrian exports have gone up 100% to approx 150 Mn Euros in the last decade and Gruvee certainly has a role to play here. I don’t care as much if GruVee is already a ‘big thing’ as long as I get a zingy glass of it with a blob of fresh sheep cheese and a piece of laugenstang.
P.S: For those interesting in sparkling wines or Sekt as they are called, Steininger or Szigeti should be worthy choice.
Marsala after being declared the Pantone colour of the year is already in vogue for the upcoming spring collection. What’s more to Marsala than its allure?? Did you know you know the colour got its name from Marsala a fortified wine made in the city of Marsala in Sicily, Italy? It is used in a lot of Italian cooking and it’s famous for its use in the popular Zabaglione. However Marsala is not the first colour inspired by an alcoholic beverage, with Holi, the festival of colors coming up let us look at some more colours that are just not warm to the eyes but can also get you the happy high.
Mimosa: It was the 2009 colour of the year from Pantone, was inspired from the flowers of the Mimosa and the sparkle of the cocktail Mimosa. The cocktail is as fresh as the colour, with Triple Sec and orange Juice topped with Champagne.
Sauterne: The region on the southern end of Bordeaux, it’s known for its sweet luscious wines which command a fortune and age for decades. And this enchanting colour gets its name from the elixir made from the Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grape. Chateau D’Yquem has led the pack here for more than a century.
Champagne/Pink Champagne: When I-Phone came in its gold variant, people and the press called it the Champagne colour, haven’t researched enough but perhaps for convenience Apple still mentions it as gold. Champagne the epitome of sparkling or fizzy wines can only be made in Champagne a region in France using the methode Champenoise way of production which outside the regions is called the methode traditionelle or the traditional method. And the pink variant of it find place in the Pantone’s list.
Burgundy: Not very far from Champagne is the region of Burgundy in the north-east of France. The colour Burgundy gets its name from the perfumed red wines the region produces from the Pinot Noir grapes. These wines can fetch astronomical prices and very often goes in to lakhs for a bottle.
Chartreuse : After all the grape ferments above this one is a liqueur made by steeping more than 130 plants and flowers and is the world’s only naturally green coloured liqueur. Made by monks, this French product still uses the recipe from the 17th century and only two monks at the distillery know of it. At 55% alcohol, this ‘elixir of long life’ as the original manuscript read is best enjoyed cold; people have it on ice or in long drinks these days too.
“ Give me a sweet wine’ asked a seemingly well heeled customer at a prominent South Mumbai wine store and the store associate handed him a bottle of ‘port no X’ without even a blink. The customer left happy but not before confirming, ‘Pakka meethi hai na’ he said. Well sweetness could be one of the factors that influences and perhaps the reason why a group of mid-management executives whom I ringed in the New Year with, drank sweet fizzy wine worth 350 a bottle and also declared their love for port. Is it that simple when it comes to people’s buying behavior in the country which consumes around 10 ml of wine per capita as opposed to France’ 40 litres!!
I was in Bengaluru recently and met a finance honcho at his home. Knowing my background, he instantly let me see his collection of wine bottles, all Indian which he had bought at a ‘shut down’ sale. The collection included everything from a shiraz to a merlot to a cabernet sauvignon, all grape varieties and even a Goan port wine which is overwhelmingly sweet unlike all others which were dry (not sweet).I asked him his favorites and he said he like them all, his said his work involved a lot of stress and the customary glass of wine with dinner gave him a good night sleep and he also cited the health benefits from the red. In this case the wine was more therapeutic and the finance man he was, he just spent wisely!!
Another therapeutic use of a wine I stumbled upon with good evidence was when businessman at a plush Delhi hotel ordered a 12 liter bottle of sparkling wine. This therapy was psychological, he asked the server to get the bottle with all pomp and show to his table and then take it to his car, yeah he did not open it since he knew he couldn’t finish it between two of them, all he got was the eyeballs from fellow diners and he left a happy man after paying close to a million rupees in cash!!
As most of you would think, I am trying to pass some judgement about the people in contention above!! No, what I am trying to do here is to demystify wines and want to tell you that people won’t be passing judgments about you when you did not know your wines!! Did you know about hops in a beer when you had your first or did you know about peat when you really liked your first Scotch whisky, you perhaps still do not know about them; then why does wine come with such a halo that people almost take wine drinking like an examination!!! Please stop believing that people around are sitting to test you on wine jargons, they are there to enjoy their tipples and so are you.
Your wine drinking should start with a random bottle of wine; the price would depend on your propensity to pay but ideally; start lower. Savour the wine and pass your judgement, you liked it or you didn’t; to begin with and as you gain more experience with them; you can create your own scale. Wine becomes complex as there are close to 5000 grape varieties and all are distinct in their flavor profiles, the more you taste the more you know. Hence making small notes of the wine you have had becomes imperative as it is easy to forget and you could someday go back and pick the same bottle of wine you did not like!! Wine expert reviews are only good to begin with as you would eventually understand if or not your tastes match. Lastly try to pick up a short course on wines, well it surely can help you impress people if that’s your agenda but importantly it will help you drink better. Like someone has said, life is too short to drink bad wine..
The private dining room at Riwaz at the Ritz Carlton was set-up to co-host this #happyhigh wine tasting held in association with the Food Lovers Magazine. All of us were excited for this exclusive tasting because this was unheard of!! The tasting comprised 4 sparklings, 2 reds and a white and what made them special was that they were stored in the Bengaluru weather for over 6 years and many of them were meant for drinking young!!
Present for the tasting were Ruma Singh – Journalist and Wine writer, Kripal Amanna – Editor; Food Lovers Magazine, Heemanshu Ashar – Ex- President; Bangalore Wine Club, Mohit Nischol –Business Head; SDU wines, Nilesh Singh – Food and Beverage Manager; Ritz Carlton, Manu Manikandan – Beverage Manager; Ritz Carlton, two consumers; both IT professionals, Sandesh Kamat and MK Kulandhaisamy and lastly Ajit Balgi – Founder; The Happy High who led the tasting. Kulandhaisamy who owned the wines was noble enough to store them and then let them be uncorked for this; one of its kind wine experiment!
The wines weren’t tasted blind and every member on the panel cited their opinions freely and discussed the wine and its nuances. So following were the wines:
Le Chablisienne, Chablis 2001
Made from Chardonnay grapes, this wine is known to be lean and crisp with citrus, green fruit and mineral aromas, more importantly Chablis of this stature is meant to be drunk young. 2001 vintage should have been drunk latest by 2006 if not younger, we had no hope but this wine surprised us! It was bright gold and complex on the nose with some bready notes to begin with, followed by honey and apricot. The palate did not confirm the nose however it had an amazing long toasty finish. The wine continued to evolve in the glass with time and ended up with aromas almost reminiscent of a Riesling. As Ruma put it ‘Couldn’t have judged it to be Chablis if it were to be tasted blind’. This wines behavior certainly brings in hope to those who have some old stock up their cellar!!
Chapel Down, Non Vintage, English Sparkling
This produce from Kent in Southern England with its bracing acidity and fruit is slated to be a worthy competitor to the French heavy weight Champagne. Again meant for early drinking and this one gave away in 6 years or may be much earlier, however the aromas were hinting of cork contamination and had little to do with age. Naphthalene, Moth balls, wet rug, wet socks etc were some of the descriptors used by the panel. One thing that was noteworthy was the mousse; it was the finest amongst all and very persistent. It went on for more than an hour!!
Oudinot NV Champagne
The label said ‘consume within a year of purchase’, we managed just to break some rules here and it did not pay off. The panel unanimously declared the wine oxidized and it was flat on the palate too.
Moet Chandon NV Champagne
This needs no introduction, but you may not have tasted a one aged in the cool Bangalore climate for 6 years. This one stood the test of time and came out clean. It had a youthful colour was pleasant to drink. A younger one would have been more exuberant though. Nonetheless this was a thumbs up!!
Gerard Seguin Gevrey Chambertin 2002
A village wine from Burgundy and made of Pinot Noir grapes,this one has the potential to age and it proved to be right. We decanted the wine an hour before and it had very fine sedimentation. Pale Garnet in colour, this pour was a treat on the nose with notes of Coffee, Cocoa, Spice, leather with little underlying fruit. On the palate it was easy with mature tannins and bursting with flavours just like it did on the nose. The wine with a medium finish was the highlight of the tasting.
Domaine Dubois Nuits St Georges 1er Cru 2002
One of the 3500 bottles from the vintage and with a premier cru classification, we expected a mouthful. We decanted it and it was heavily sedimented. It however struggled on the nose and ditto on the palate; it had big tannins and was drinkable as a wine but maybe we could have got the better of it a few years earlier. The Gevrey Chambertin would come at a much lesser price than this one thus giving us a good evidence to reinstate that price and quality cannot be equated.
Dom Perignon 1995
We saved this big daddy of Champagnes for the end. This one takes 7 years to be released post harvest and this must have been in 2002. It was deep gold in colour with heavy oxidative; honey and nut aromas and was lackluster on the palate. This again came as a surprise since this wine has an ageing potential of a couple of decades at least. At the moment hotels in the country would be selling you a 2002 or a 2004 vintage of the wine.
This wine tasting may not have been a delight for ones palate but for a couple of wines, what it surely did was give a perspective on aging with samples that were meant to age and those that weren’t. It was a well spent Saturday afternoon indeed! Now go back to your wine collection and see if you can make anything interesting out of it....
‘Economy forced me to become a vegetarian, but I finally starting liking it’ admitted Mr. A P J Abdul Kalam, ex-president of India, John Cleese the famous British author once questioned ‘If God did not intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?’ and Sir Paul McCartney of the Beatles fame declared ‘If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.’ Well I am not here to debate about food choices but this topic of vegetarianism or consumption of meat is in contention many a times, with both parties trying to convert each other with the odd Vegan scorning at both of them. I am a vegetarian and strongly believe in eat and let eat.
We vegetarians would inadvertently choose a paneer or a mushroom considering them being ‘celebratory’ or ‘ exotic’ from a menu and when it comes to choosing a wine from a list to match with our vegetarian food, you memory goes for a spin as nothing much is spoken about vegetarian food and wine pairing. Well it is difficult to pair specific vegetables to specific wines but we shall some broad principles for food and wine pairing whilst witnessing some pairings done by the Sommelier and Chefs from leading hotels in the country.
Rich and Oily:
Any food preparation which is creamy or fried will require a wine high in acidity, the acidity helps to wash down the fat on your palate to make the food experience better. For e.g.: the humble Indian samosa could be paired well with an Indian Chenin Blanc, a grape which is naturally high in acidity. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Burgundy Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Dolcetto are some wine grapes known for its refreshing acidity.
Tangy and tart:
Tomato, tamarind, vinegar etc are ingredients which bring the acidity in your food and when pairing a wine with food high in acidity like a tomato pasta or a salad with lemon dressing one should pair it with wines with good acidity, the ones which an stand and shine through the food. Sparkling wines like Champagne, Prosecco or even local produce have mouth watering acidity. Note: Acidity should not be confused with the medical term; it refers to the mouth-watering element in food and beverage.
Chef Debdash Balaga and Sommelier Madhu Sudhanan from Jamavar – Signature Indian restaurant at the Leela Palace, Chennai with their pairing
Gucchi Makkai Mushrooms
Kashmiri morels with golden corn and mushrooms in a creamy tomato sauce
Chassagne-Montrachet, 1er Cru Morgeot, Louis Jadot, 1999
The heavy duty Chardonnay from Burgundy, France
Why does the pairing go well?
This golden Chardonnay laden with ripe apple and almond aromas and juicy acidity, complements the opulent sauce and the earthy mushrooms very well whilst allowing one another to unleash themselves to the end. Truly a Royal affair!
Sweets and desserts:
The thumb rule is that the wine should be at least as sweet as the food. Indian gulab jamuns, considering their sweetness are a difficult bet however to put a figure to sweetness in wines, it could be as low as 50 gms of sugar per litre and can go as high as 400. I am sure the jamuns have their soul mate somewhere. The easiest available sweet/dessert wines in India are from local producers like Reveilo, they label it as the ‘late harvest’. Also in contrast; a salt and sweet pairing works well too, a salty cheese and a sweet wine, it pairs just like goat cheese and honey, like it; don’t you!! Lastly, people also say when in doubt, crack open a bottle of sparkling, see if it works for you!!!
Spicy and hot:
Spice in the food flares up our palate and the wine has to refresh it with every sip. In my opinion for the wine to do its job well, it has to either be sweet on the palate or at least smell sweet. Grapes like Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Merlot do good justice, also bold juicy reds like Shiraz from hot climates like India, Chile or California fit in well. Albeit when we are speaking of very hot Indian Cuisine, it is very difficult to pair a wine, I would go with a glass of water.
Chef Deepak Dange and Sommelier Manoj Jangid from Tuskers the pure vegetarian Indian restaurant at Sofitel, BKC, Mumbai with their match
Sangri ke kofte
Cottage cheese dumpling, stuffed with pickled Ker Sangri cooked in tomato and yogurt gravy
Nobilo Icon, Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand
A wine with good body, oak nuances and excellent finish.
Why does the pairing work well?
Sangri ke Kofte in sharp and mildly spiced gravy receives the refreshing element in the pairing from Nobilo Pinot Noir, bursting with dark berry fruits and spice from the oak, it is well rounded with soft tannins only to leave one amazed after every morsel.
Proteins and Soya:
Dishes high in protein should be matched with wines high in tannins. Tannins which dry your mouth out and are only present in red wines soften the proteins and thus making both the wine and food more enjoyable. Aged cheeses like Cheddar work very well with heavy red wines. Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Barolos are example of some heavy red.
The fifth sensory element, which really heightens one's gourmet experience and one, cannot really stop at one!! Mono Sodium Glutamate also called ajinomoto is the artificial form but there are natural glutamates which are not harmful present in fermented products like Soya sauce, aged products like parmesan cheese, also in ripe tomatoes, mushrooms etc. Care must be taken while paring a wine high in tannins as the combination feels only bitter and less fruity. Crisp and juicy aromatic white varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Arneis etc work very well.
Chef Ramandeep Kukreja and Sommelier Manu Manikandan from Riwaz, the Indian restaurant at the Ritz Carlton, Bengaluru with their match
Subz aur Gucchi di Galouti
Cardamom and saffron scented ‘melt in mouth’ dumplings prepared with seasonal vegetables and morels, pan seared.
Dr. Burklin-Wolf a German Riesling
A perfectly balanced wine with fresh pineapple, pear and spicy aromas rounded off with balanced mouthwatering acidity.
Why does the pairing work well?
The vegetarian Galouti kebab is made with seasonal vegetables and edible mushrooms, morels. In this preparation the mushrooms dominate the flavour of the kebab. A dry Riesling wine balances the rich flavours and goes well with Indian cuisine.
Last but not the least, every palate is different and food pairing principles are for giving you a head start into the intriguing world of wine and food. Sooner than later you should call the shots, you make your rules, remember you are the consumer!