It’s always damn fun when my little world in India opens up and someone new steps in to help me down the path to enlightenment. Not a path to enlightenment in the traditional sense of the word but in this instance down a grape lined path of liquid happiness. Recently I was introduced to Abhay Kewadkar, the chief winemaker at UB Group, and he offered to have lunch with me and help open my eyes to just how tasty Indian wines can be by walking me through his Four Seasons line.
Now, back in Spain my work mates and I used to drink wine almost every day with lunch. For almost eight years before moving to India I consumed wine almost daily with both lunch and dinner. But here in India, the only time I’ve consumed wine with lunch has been on a lazy Saturday at Café Noir listening to Chandran play while chilling with a friend …or during Sunday brunch (which is usually Champagne or cocktails, not wine). I couldn’t actually imagine any circumstance in my current professional life where I could enjoy a glass of wine at lunch … but on this particular afternoon I wasn’t working so I let the fermented love flow!
My ‘ABCs of Indian wine class took place on a sunny Wednesday at UB City over lunch at Fava. First of all, something really strange happened. Abhay surprised me by running on ‘actual’ time and not Indian Standard Time, which threw me for a bit of a loop because I’m used to arriving first and spending time with my laptop or Blackberry as I wait for people to arrive so hats off to him for that!
In all fairness I should point out that I was pretty forthcoming about the fact that I was not impressed with Indian wines, probably because I’ve been so spoiled by living in Spain where we literally had producers like Torres growing grapes in the town next to where we lived. Access to incredible wine from Spain, France and Italy was cheap-as-chips and overly abundant. Those regions have been producing wine for centuries – so logically it is impossible that India could compete on a global scale with them at such a young age in their production life. You see, many of the wineries only started within the past two decades. However, Four Seasons is doing a tremendous job and has produced some exquisite, quality wines in a short amount of time. I must admit that I walked away from lunch with one red and one white that I absolutely love finally.
Like the U.S. and Australia, India categorises and labels its wine by the varietal (the type of grape) not by the region like in Europe. So for me it’s a bit confusing to know what I want because I’m so accustomed to selecting a Rioja or Priorat or Bordeaux or Valpolicella, for example. In India at the moment there is no governing body that ensures that what is printed on a label is 100% accurate so that can also generate some misleading expectations about what it is inside a bottle of Indian wine. The ‘Indian Grape Processing Board’ is trying to change that with the help of Abhay, who is a part of this ambitious committee.
While our salads were being prepared, Abhay started out by explaining the types of grapes they grow at Four Seasons, how some of the wines are pure while others use a combination of grapes, and more. Here’s what I learned and the wines I tried:
- The Blush wine is a combination of Zinfandel and Shiraz. For me it had more of a bite – that Abhay explained was the “structure” of the wine – and he also explained that it is the perfect wine to balance out the spicy food of India. The “structure” of the wine allows it to handle a culinary experience from aperitif until the very end and he boasts that it is the perfect wine to accompany a traditional thali.
- The White wines I tried were the Viognier and the Chenin Blanc. It is interesting to me how very distinct two white wines from the same grower and producer can be but that is exactly what they have. Turns out that Chenin Blanc is the most popular white wine in India and pairs well with all of the Asiatic cuisine. To me it tasted drier than the Viognier but Abhay told me a bit of a secret…it has residual sugar from fermentation (15 grams of sugar to each litre of wine) which plays a part of the wine making process. As for the Viognier, they ferment 25% of the grapes in French oak barrels for 3 months to give it its full body – or what Abhay corrected me by calling its “complexity”. The Viognier is darker in colour and to me tasted sweeter and was tremendously aromatic (Abhay used the same word so I’m guessing I got that word right!).
- The Red Wine I was given was the Shiraz but from the Barrique Reserve line. Because my palette is quite evolved from my years in Spain, Abhay knew that this was the best red to share with me and he was right. Their 2008 wine won them a bronze medal at the International Wine Challenge in 2011 and it was easy to taste why. This Shiraz is fermented for close to 1 year in French oak barrels and then stored at optimal condition for another 6 months after being bottled before it is sold. The wine is young but they have done an exquisite job with it.
Here are my favourites:
- The Viognier – for me this is now my favourite white here in India. I much prefer it to the chenin blanc, it’s wonderful! You’ve really got to give it a try, especially if you are like me and it was the first time I had even heard of this varietal before…what an eye opener!
- The Barrique Reserve Shiraz – I’m not even going to bother with the non “reserve” Indian wines anymore. I really have tried them all at one point or another and am always disappointed because they have such a stronger bite than their European brothers and sisters. This Shiraz has opened up my eyes to the fact that I CAN relax, sip and unwind with an Indian wine at the end of the day and actually really enjoy it. It’s wonderful, give it a try! Trust me….especially at the tail end of a long day or over a long, leisurely meal.
So what did I learn during my lunch? A few things actually! First, wine makers have a completely unique set of vocabulary and although they think us normal folk understand it, some of us – like me – don’t always! I had to ask time and again what the hell Abhay was talking about I also learned that practice makes perfect and I am soooo out of practice at drinking wine at lunch now. I turned beet red after only my first half a glass! Honestly, it was embarrassing! I looked like a tourist out in the sun! My friends back home in Spain would not be proud of me!
I haven’t bought a bottle of domestic wine in over a year here so it will be a nice change of pace to skip the insanely expensive price of the imported Italian and Australian wines I normally buy and start going native again! I send a big thanks to Abhay Kewadkar and Four Seasons for that!
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(reviewer Angela Carson)