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Following requests from my peers and industry colleagues, in this LinkedIn post I shared the important factors to keep in mind while compiling wine lists for restaurants. I hope the readers of this blog will also benefit from the points discussed in the article.

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A wine list is not just a menu with aesthetically laid out items and prices. Apart from being the face of any wine program it is also a document which demonstrates an organization’s wine vision. What do you wish to achieve from your wine program? Is it just revenue which drives your wine selection or the intangibles are also equally important? Does your portfolio indicate a special focus on quality and professionalism? And above all, how do you differentiate the quality of your wine offerings from that of your peers and competitors?

Following are the five key points to keep in mind (among some general ones) while compiling a restaurant wine list aiming to be in the top league:

Focus on your niche & USP: Every wine program must find its niche to be able to stay relevant in a highly competitive market. It can be just one unique feature or combination of features, but something that sets your wine program separate from the rest is key to achieving the first step to credibility in a market flooded with run-of-the-mill offerings.

What does your wine selection excel in? What do you offer different from your competition
which creates a positive impression in your guests’ mind? And finally, what role does the wine list play in creating an exceptional dining experience?

Let’s look at a few common ones which top sommeliers use as their menu’s USP:

# Wine paired prix fixe or chef’s tasting menus
# Great wine-by-the-glass program with a mix so meticulously crafted that it appears to be a fantastic mini list within the list (don’t forget, high by-the-glass sale always brings more revenue due to higher volumes they are able to generate)
# Unique tasting samples with food teasers
# Super niche wines to complement equally exclusive cuisine
# Handpicked and specially sourced rare wines

The possibilities are many, one has to decide what works for them the best considering the business objectives, customer profile and the overall F&B concept of the restaurant.

Achieve that elusive balance: One of the hallmarks of best wine lists is the all-important balance of vital components which go into their making. Be it a synergy between regions/appellations, a proportionate distribution of grape varieties and blends, a fair representation of styles and types or even a good mix of price points.

Of course a lot depends on the restaurant’s profile and the cuisine served but on the whole a well-harmonized wine list adds immensely to the organization’s wine culture. It also heightens your guests’ comfort level while navigating through the list and in deciding about which wines to choose.

Move beyond clichés: Some wisdom about wine lists are well and truly past their use-by date, while a few are overused to the extent of being monotonous and predictable, and some fall under the veritable ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ adage. Sticking to them can prove to be a hurdle in creating great wine offerings.

Take for example the most widely held view about the size of inventory/portfolio – lot of menus, in the name of depth and variety, offer thousands of choices to guests. But is it really necessary to to carry so many labels to achieve your business goals (remember a large inventory not only locks in valuable cash but can also proves to be a logistics and maintenance nightmare)? Not if your wine team has perfected the art of deriving the most from a lean but well-balanced menu.

Ensure flawless & effective communication: Imagine a wine list which scores big on design, layout and product offerings but lacks in its ability to effectively communicate and connect to the reader because of sloppy mistakes – mostly owing to negligence but also due to ignorance. The most common irritants are the spelling errors (Voignier, Romani-Contee, Marlboro, Bordeux & Cabernet Suavignon are the most common ones I have encountered). This is followed by inaccurate categorization of wines, like a Pommard listed under Côte de Nuits, all sparklings under Champagne, a rich and oaky Napa Chardonnay under ‘Light white wines’ etc. And finally, vague and inaccurate descriptions of menu items and their characteristics. Consider the following description for Sauvignon Blanc’s flavor profile in a wine list I came across during a recent conversation on Twitter:

cat peeLeave alone laymen, even a wine aficionado is bound to go “What in the name of Bacchus is that?”after seeing this description! Although the intention seems to be right but the execution leaves a lot to be desired for.

Such communication faux-pas not only makes your list look unprofessional but also neutralizes your vision. No doubt your sommelier and wine team will be at the rescue but such mistakes are bound to create a damaging first impression.

 

Promote: Lastly, you have a great wine list which your guests keep raving about but are you promoting it enough to think beyond the word-of-mouth element? Let’s face it, a wine list is only as good as its standing in the market and the results it brings to the business, both tangible (revenue) and intangibles (goodwill, stature, luxury quotient etc.).

Thanks to the power of social media and many other digital platforms it has become easier to reach out to customers. Make maximum use of them to engage with food and wine lovers and let the world know about your wine program. One caution here – many organizations have become too dependent on social media to spread the ‘wine buzz’ but online promotion should be complemented with conventional PR and marketing efforts that have stood the test of time, like press releases, media engagement, wine dinners, tasting and sampling events etc.

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Apart from creating wine lists for many restaurants, with different themes and concepts, I am also passionate about studying and analyzing wine lists. This interest has grown over the years and has helped me to understand and learn the nuances which contribute in the making of world-class lists.

If you have come across a great wine list or have suggestions and ideas about one, do share with the readers. It will be useful learning for everyone.

Cheers,

Niladri

Those active on LinkedIN may know that the professional networking site has just launched an article/blog publishing platform for some of its millions of users. The idea is to allow the members to make the most of targeted reach to fellow professionals and industry watchers.

As an active user of LinkedIN, I wanted to take advantage of this new feature and share my thoughts about a very interesting subject which I’ve been contemplating writing about (actually for this site, as I’ve been doing since 2008). So, I did end up writing on LI’s publisher and as expected, the response has been good. I am reproducing it here for the benefit of readers of this site. (See original)

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The wine industry and its functioning as we know today – dynamic and extremely progressive, is a far cry from a confined and traditional affair about two decades ago. While globalization has played a vital role, increased consumer awareness and a corresponding demand for more refined products and services, is at the crux of this dramatic transformation within a relatively short period of time. This demand, in turn, has given rise to various organisations and ideas which have helped shape up the contemporary trade and enhance its global appeal. In fact, wine’s rising popularity around the globe, especially in the last decade, wouldn’t have been possible without these innovative brands and smart individuals behind them. In a sense they represent the building blocks of the modern wine world.

Wine’s fascinating turnaround story is often measured by its commercial success worldwide, which is reflective in the stories we mostly come across in the media – like this recent one about most powerful wine brands. But in spite of economics being the ultimate yardstick of wine’s increasing footprint, the industry owes a great deal to the actual drivers of the contemporary business. The list below mentions the most notable of these brands, with an international presence and irrespective of their commercial prowess.
1.) Technology: Most of these are young companies which followed the start-up route during the wine boom of the late nineties and the first decade of this century. They have not only acted as vital connectors of information highways of the wine world but also simplified the way we gather information.

  • CellarTracker: Those who use/follow CT swear by it, and why wouldn’t they? A one of its kind cellar management tool, it is the largest and most credible platform for serious wine lovers with an enviable database of tasting notes, wine reviews and recommendations. Eric LeVine‘s gift to the wine world is an invaluable one and will remain so for a long time to come.
  • Wine-Searcher.com: If there is one organization which has brought transparency and accountability to the online wine trade, it undoubtedly has to be Wine- Searcher.com. Since its inception in 1999 in London (later moved to New Zealand), the company has gone through a dramatic transformation – both as a wine search engine, which remains its USP, and in its latest avatar as a wine news and information site. I had the good fortune of being a part of Wine-Searcher’s wine team and witness its raw ability to empower the wine consumer. Its strength lies in the amount of data it has accumulated over the years, and more importantly the ingenious way the data is integrated to fuel its search engine software.
  • Social & professional networking sites: With the advent of web 2.0 and the corresponding rise of social media, it seems there is no limit to how much wine information is now available online, most of which is dynamic and real time. Today’s vibrant wine ecosystem is unimaginable without Facebook Likes & shares, Twitter’s witty one liners, LinkedIn’s professional inputs or Instagram’s creative photo sharing.
  • Apps, apps & more apps (more the merrier!): With the increase of tech-savvy wine consumers, social media engagement and usage of mobile devices, it is but natural that so many mobile apps have flooded the market of late. They offer a host of features, ranging from label scanning for tasting notes and ratings, to those which let you sift through restaurant wine lists remotely, plus many many more.

2.) R&D, education & training: This sector of the industry is probably the most vital considering the scope and opportunities of spreading knowledge and information, particularly in young and upcoming wine cultures. A case in point is this short video about China’s rise as a major wine market (note that education is the most common keyword here).

  • WSET: The Wine & Spirits Education Trust is at the forefront of wine education in the world. Whether it is basic wine knowledge or specialist qualifications, WSET’s contribution in spreading awareness about wine remains unparalleled.
  • Court of Master Sommeliers: The hospitality industry provides a major source of wine consumption and enjoyment around the world and therefore it is of utmost importance that a trained manpower is available to fulfill this requirement. CMS offers major industry-recognized sommelier certifications, including the holy grail that is Master Sommelier.
  • Other wine education providers: While there are many institutes around the world offering wide ranging courses; from wine production to marketing, there are some which have carved a niche for themselves. The likes of Roseworthy (University of Adelaide) and UC Davis stand out for their quality of wine production courses, whereas BEM Bordeaux has emerged as a chosen destination for business related studies.
  • AWRI: A pioneer in R&D field, the Australian Wine Research Institute’s repertoire of ground-breaking research, especially in wine production, has helped producers around the world to overcome many challenges in the vineyard and winery, resulting in creation of more refined products. Whether it is advanced vineyard management, improving vine health, clonal research, sustainability innovations, simplifying wine microbiology, demystifying wine ageing, important studies on wine closures or valuable research on market behavior and consumer preferences, this organization’s list of research work has made it indispensable to the wine industry.

Then there are organizations like Wine Intelligence and IWSR (International Wine & Spirit Research) who excel in keeping track of market sentiments through specialized studies which include a range of market insights, trends and consumer behaviors, among others.

3.) The marketplace:With rapidly changing business dynamics and fierce competition among brands to capture new markets, there has been a revolution of sorts in how wine is sold today. While brick and mortar outlets still exist, their monopoly has steadily declined and replaced by numerous other ways consumers are able to source wine today.

  • Liv-Ex: Although not a place where you can directly buy wine, it makes to this list solely on the basis of the unique proposition it brings to the fine wine market. It is like the wine world’s stock market, where wines are traded online and over phone and valued against Liv-Ex’s large data of historical and current wine prices. Those with a stake in the fine wine market or wish to have their fingers on the pulse of the market, consider it as an invaluable resource.
  • Online wine stores: Wine e-commerce is big business today and with technology playing a big role in the promotion of the beverage, it is hardly surprising that they have mushroomed all over the world and catering to a big chunk of the market.
  • Futures market: Buying/selling wines as futures is not a new phenomenon but in today’s wine economy it has gained added significance owing to a renewed focus on premium wines and a healthy perception of them being good source of alternative investment. No wonder, the futures/en primeur market is seen as a barometer of a country’s fine wine potential.
  • Auction market: Those who followed the wine boom of the last five years which unfolded in the east, especially in Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China, realize the importance of the auction market in generating a wave of interest and passion about the beverage. One may argue that this form of trading is super niche and hence has limited reach but the buzz which accompanies fine wine auctions is enough to make this form of trading a significant player in today’s wine economy.

4.) Critics, writers and domain experts: The contemporary wine world owes a lot to these individuals for spreading their wisdom and knowledge about wines and who positively influence our thoughts/opinions about the beverage. Whether it is an acclaimed writer, a prolific blogger or a mass-followed taster and critic, they have deep understanding about the subject and the dynamics of our industry. Thanks to their efforts, coupled with opening of new channels of communication, wine’s appreciation is on a steady rise worldwide. (The list of such personalities is too long to be included here).

5.) Sommeliers: The new breed of sommeliers are not just traditional wine servers – they are the new-age ambassadors of wine wielding enormous clout in the trade, a reason the hospitality industry lays a lot of emphasis in hiring top sommeliers to run their wine programs.

6.) The wine media: Last but not the least, how can our vinous thirst be quenched without the regular supply of news, views and analysis about virtually everything happening around the wine world? In spite of alternative sources of information (read social media) making inroads in the wine ecosystem, a vibrant mainstream wine media is still, and will remain, the primary source information.

Cheers,

Niladri

Alcohol

Call them legs or tears, alcohol level in wine always invites scrutiny

Among many hotly debated issues in the wine world today, including some contentious ones, alcohol level in wines is one which attracts a lot of scrutiny from opinion makers as well as consumers. A lot of pundits have expressed their dismay over increasing alcohol potency in modern-day wines and educated us on the likely fallout of this trend. As alcohol abuse increases, this issue is likely to be a burning topic in the wine world for a long time to come.

But do we need to press the panic button as yet? And more importantly, don’t we need to adopt a more balanced approach when discussing the complex subject? The wine media is awash with one-sided stories about what is thought to be a ‘negative trend’ in our industry, but this post is an attempt to look at the larger perspective affecting alcohol content in wines.

To start with, why is this debate important for the wine industry and why does it arouse passions? In my view, there are three reasons:

  1. Serious health concerns related to alcohol abuse.
  2. One of wine’s uniqueness lies in its compatibility with food but wines with high alcohol are hard to pair with many dishes, especially those with hot spices. The opposite is also true – a very light wine may not be compatible to many cuisines owing to their richness. 
  3. Balance, which is probably the single most vital factor in deciding a wine’s quality, is often compromised when alcohol level is disproportionately high.

All the points above are self-explanatory and intimate to the subject. They are the prime reasons why most influencers of our industry raise concerns about this trend, and rightly so. But apart from genuine concerns, we also often come across vibes that ‘sound right’ and which a lot of wine consumers ‘like to hear’. In other words, is there an element of political correctness whenever this topic is discussed? Let’s find out.

A few days ago, Robert Joseph, a credible voice of the wine world, tweeted the following:

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The story in question raised some interesting points which indicated that consumers prefer wines with high alcohol. To be fair in the context of this article it is important to mention here that the study was conducted involving a very limited sample size of participants from a tiny geographical area, using just one type of wine. So, its accuracy can be questioned, but since we are not here in judgement of the veracity of the research, I will limit myself to discussing some relevant facts in support of the ‘balanced approach’ I mentioned earlier.

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Some of the world’s most iconic wines boast of high alcoholic strength

This is not the first time such studies have come up in the public domain. In fact a lot has been written about the well-established fact that alcohol level in wines is steadily on the rise. What could be the reason? Well, many theories have come forth, like global warming, effect of wine critics who tend to prefer such wines, evolved vineyard management, etc. Whatever the reason(s), let’s be clear that like every other economic principle, this phenomenon is also driven my market demand. Why would a certain trend find solid traction in world trade if it was not popular? Surely not because people want to get drunk fast!

Wine’s unique identity has never been due to low alcohol, although in the contemporary trade there exists a category of such wines, aimed at the health and calorie conscious. But when was the last time we heard of a brand which created ripples by marketing its low-alcohol content? I haven’t come across one and the only reason I could link this to is the important role played by alcohol in influencing a wine’s charatcter. Apart from being a major factor in deciding the body of wine, it also plays an important role in the wine’s overall texture, weight and a degree of sweetness on the palate.

Moreover, a valid concern about low alcohol in wines is also related to the actual production methods. The two prevalent ways of achieving low alcohol in wines are either by harvesting the grapes early, or at optimum ripeness but the alcohol content later lowered artificially in the winery. In both the cases the quality of wine can be adversely affected:

  1. Early harvesting ==> In warm climates where phenolic ripeness lags behind sugar ripeness, early harvesting adversely affects both the processes. In simple terms, along with less sugar and more acid, the other vital components like tannins, anthocyanins and flavouring compounds also remain unripe in such grapes. Absence of these vital building blocks is best avoided in finished wines, otherwise it often results in what is termed by experts as ‘badly made wine’ with prevalence of green and unripe characters. In short, to achieve low-alcohol naturally in moderately warm to warm climates, the trade-off can be highly undesirable for the sensory and taste profile of the wine.
  2. Artificial reduction of alcohol ==> In this case, full ripeness is achieved in the vineyard to ensure optimum physiological ripeness, along with sugar ripeness, and then the alcohol is reduced by employing various techniques. These range from as drastic a measure as ‘watering down’ in which the grape must is diluted with water to bring the sugar level down (and hence low alcohol), to more advanced techniques like reverse osmosis and fast spinning. While the pros and cons of these methods are yet to be scientifically established, on the ground studies have established that the quality of wine suffers immensely as these involve exposing the wine and its sensitive components to severe battering (literally).
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Better vineyard management is the way forward in keeping alcohol strength in check

Another way, which in my view is the best possible alternative, to keep alcohol levels in check in wines is through highly advanced vineyard management where the aim is to control the grape ripening process and reduce their ‘hang time’, but still achieve the right amount of sugar, acids, tannin, colour, aroma and other organic compounds. Till the time the larger wine world does not master and practice this art, it is of little use to discuss it in the context of this article.

It is perfectly okay for wines to be dismissed as ‘unbalanced’ due to high alcohol which is overpowering and disproportionate to other components, in addition to being nonconforming to its style. But otherwise, whenever a wine’s quality is simply measured on its alcohol content, there lies a risk of erroneous judgement about the wine’s quality.

In the end what matters is WHAT YOU LIKE

We all have our unique taste preferences and should always remain loyal to our taste buds irrespective of what critics or the wine media tell us. One should not be defensive about his/her liking of high alcohol wines nor be boastful about their refined palates which only prefer wines below 12.5%. Those who fall in the first category – why not limit your consumption rather than suppressing your sensory pleasures? As Robert Joseph summed it up at the end of our Twitter interaction:

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Here’s what I believe – if you are really after low-alcohol wines, go for the ones which are marketed as such or opt for those which have traditionally been known to be ‘light’. A word of caution here – if you like your wine bone dry, I’m afraid you will restrict yourself to wines from limited geographical areas as well as styles, mostly produced in cool-climate regions. Here’s a list of table wines you can try which have low alcoholic strength:

Whites: Sweeter style German Rieslings, Pinot Grigio from cool-climate Italian regions like Trentino, Loire Chenins & Sauvignon Blancs, Albarino from Spain, Vinho Verde from Portugal, light & fizzy Muscats (like Moscato d’Asti) and cool-climate New World Rieslings

Reds: Beaujolais & most Gamays, Cabernet Franc from Loire, light Italian reds like Lambrusco and Brachetto

Rosés: ‘Blush’ variants produced in California, Mateus, Loire Rosés plus many more produced around the world to be enjoyed chilled and young.

For those, who are not overly and unjustifiably pedantic about alcohol levels, here is a list of table wines you can enjoy, albeit in moderation :) :

Whites: Rich & voluptuous styles of Chardonnay (almost the entire New World produces such styles), some South African Chenins

Reds: Amarone, some Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Grenache and Grenache based blends, Californian Zinfandel, South Australian Shiraz, some Right-Bank Bordeaux (big, Merlot-based wines), rich Californian Cabernet & blends (Meritage) etc.

Rosés: Southern Rhone Grenache based wines like Tavel, plus many more produced in countries like Spain, Argentina and South Africa.

Cheers,

Niladri

This is the second part of the story and features restaurants in five star hotels with exceptional wine offerings. A version of this was published in Time Out Delhi’s special wine edition ‘The Grape Escape’, under the title Veni, Vidi, Vino. I am posting the original and unedited version here for the benefit of the readers of this blog.

The first part which featured standalone restaurants can be accessed here. I recommend you read the first part before continuing here, as it sets the overall objective of the entire exercise of writing about these wine destinations for Time Out Delhi.

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San Gimignano, The Imperial

Janpath Lane, Connaught Place, New Delhi

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Imperial’s San Gimignano offers an idyllic setting for food & wine enjoyment

There are very few restaurants in Delhi that can boast of playing a trendsetting role in the city’s food and wine and fine-dining landscape. Imperial’s San Gimignano not only occupies the top echelons of that list but is also recognised for maintaining extremely high standards of food and wine offerings over the years.

Named after the eponymous hill town of Tuscany, San Gimignano epitomises the region’s world-famous wine and gastronomic heritage. A well-crafted wine list packed with the choicest of labels complements the best of Italian cuisine. Out of the 390 odd labels, unsurprisingly, a bias towards Italian wines is evident, although many other classical wine regions also feature prominently. From the ubiquitous Chianti to the cult known as Ornellaia Masseto, the Italian wine selection is a perfect match with the signature items on the menu, some of which are apparently made with generous additions of premium Italian wines.

The quaint and private, yet highly sophisticated interior of the restaurant is ideal for an indulgent food and wine experience. But if you enjoy a livelier, alfresco experience, opt for a seat in the snow-white and blemish-less courtyard outside, aptly named the ‘Paradiso del Vino’ or the ‘Paradise of Wine’.

The wine list:

Main Feature: Carefully chosen Italian wine selection.

Strengths: Top names from Bordeaux, Burgundy and of course a vast selection of Italian wines from all the country’s wine producing regions.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 12, across types and styles. For those new to the restaurant, this may seem to be too limited but apparently it is a conscious decision as most guests prefer to order bottles of wines to enjoy over a long meal.

What to look out for (specials): Alfresco dining at the Paradiso del Vino and Chef special menu paired with wines.

Food & wine recommendations: Try out their Tagliolini Con Salsa Di Frutti Di Mare Champagne (homemade tagliollini pasta with a delicate champagne seafood sauce). Pair this with a crisp cold-climate Chardonnay/ Ribolla Gialla blend on the list from the Friulli-Venezia region, like ‘Livio Felluga Sharis delle Venezie IGT’.

Another signature dish, Scallopine Di Pollo (crumb fried chicken breast with parsley butter sauce and capers), is a good partner with the light to medium bodied and fruity Allegrini Valpolicella.

Price range: Expensive. A meal for two with wines on an average costs about Rs. 15000 plus taxes, where the price of wine considered is in the range of Rs. 7000 to 8000.

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Threesixty° & Enoteca, The Oberoi

Opposite Delhi public School, Dr Zakir Hussain Marg, New Delhi

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Threesixty° at The Oberoi offers the most complete wine experience in Delhi

Any mention of Delhi’s food and wine destinations is incomplete without the special reference to Threesixty° at The Oberoi. A melting pot of delectable world cuisine complemented with a selection of wines to crave for, this iconic address has always been on top in the itinerary of the city’s diners.

The restaurant has many distinguishing factors which separate it from its peers in the industry. Most will agree that the prime among these are the sheer variety and quality of food on offer, in addition to the superb service so intrinsic to Oberoi hospitality. But wine also plays a major role in shaping up the restaurant’s overall profile. In fact many would argue that the wine-friendly setting of Threesixty° is its main draw.

Enoteca – the wine bar, wine library and tasting room – all rolled in one is a customised and climate-controlled wine cellar strategically located at the entrance of the restaurant and acts as the centre stage of all its wine activities. It is perhaps the biggest visible cellar in town, consisting of over 1200 bottles and over 150 labels of wines. An ideal place to tickle one’s vinous senses, it is legendary as a hub for wine tastings in a setting nowhere else to be experienced in the city.

There are many other reasons why Threesixty° carries the worthy distinction of a genuine food & wine destination of the highest order. Some of the most notable among these are; one of Delhi’s most lavish spreads in Sunday brunch accompanied by choicest of Champagnes, a private dining experience for groups at the glass-encased private dining room, customised wine dinners, and many more.

The wine list:

Main Features: Vast selection of cuisines and wines from around the world. Interactive dining experience. Wine sampling at the Enoteca.

Strength: A carefully designed list with healthy representation from almost all the major wine regions of the world.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 12 across types and styles, including two sparklings.

What to look out for (specials): Sunday brunch with choice of Champagnes. Wine sampling at the Enoteca.

Food & wine recommendations: For appetizer, you can try their famous ‘Thai Pomelo Salad’ paired with a well-chilled Henri Bourgeois Sancerre. Among the many choices for the main course, the ‘Threesixty Baluchi Raan’ is a highlight. You can pair this signature dish with the Rupert Rothschild Merlot.

Price range: Expensive. Average cost for meal for two with wine is around 10000 plus taxes assuming two glasses of wine are consumed per person, during a 3 course meal (appetizers, main course and dessert).

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Masala Art, Taj Palace

2, Sardar Patel Marg, Diplomatic Enclave, New Delhi

Masala art

Masala Art is one of the very few Indian cuisine restaurants in Delhi where wine plays an important role in the overall dining experience

Food and beverage has always been a prime focus at the Taj Group of Hotels, aptly demonstrated by the myriad of highly sought-after brands across their properties in India. Delhi accounts for a fair share of these restaurants, with some deserving special mention owing to the incorporation of effective wine programmes in their overall F&B offerings. Masala Art at the Taj Palace is one such restaurant which stands out for its commitment to promote wine as the beverage of choice for diners. Whether it is the wine-focussed happy hour with its one is to one offer on specially chosen wine bottles, wine paired dinners, or on-the-table recommendations of chosen wines with the restaurant’s signature dishes, the dining experience in the restaurant is enhanced with the inclusion of wines.

The group’s long standing focus on its wine programme also appropriately reflects in Masala Art’s wine list, which scores highly on key parameters like depth, variety and exclusivity. It features in excess of 450 labels from almost every major wine region of the world, including more than 20 competitively priced wines-by-the-glass. The knowledgeable staff is always at hand to suggest wines based on your preference as well as the combination of masalas (Indian spices) and cooking style.

The restaurant’s contemporary take on presenting rustic Indian cuisine with a western-style interactive food preparation is a welcome change for the city’s Indian food lovers. And the judicious addition of wines to its repertoire has only underlined Masala Art’s endeavour to offer its guests the very best in fine dining experience.

The Wine List: 

Main Feature: Vast selection of international wines presented in a neat, user-friendly design.

Strengths: Equal focus on every style and type of wine representing all major wine regions.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 22 well priced wines specially selected with the compatibility to food in mind.

What to look out for (specials): Wine paired set menu. Interactive kitchen where you can get your dish custom made. Happy hour between 6.30 pm and 8 pm where there is a one-is-to-one offer on international wines.

Food & wine recommendations: The ‘Chatpata Crab’ is an interesting dish to try. Made with tangy and aromatic spices, an equally zesty and flavourful Riesling comes to mind as a worthy partner. Try the glass of St. Urbans-Hof Riesling Kabinett from Germany’s Mosel with this item.

Staying with seafood and an equally strongly aromatic dish, the ‘Jheenge ka salan’ is also worth sampling with a Kessler Gewürztraminer Grand Cru 2006.

Price range: Expensive. Average cost of meal for two with wine is around 10000 plus taxes assuming two glasses of wine are consumed per person.

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Le Cirque, Leela Palace

Diplomatic Enclave, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi

Le Cirque

The chic & upmarket Le Cirque scores highly not only for its avant-garde food but also for the largest wine selection in town

Le Cirque at the Leela is India’s most high profile import in the luxury restaurant segment, and since the iconic New York brand debuted in Delhi, it has left an indelible mark on the capital’s fine dining scene. Carrying on the tradition of exemplary food and wine offerings in its original home, Le Cirque has also created a cult following among a niche clientele in the capital.

The French-Italian cuisine served at the restaurant uses only the very best quality ingredients – a large proportion of which is imported. The flavour and texture of the carefully crafted dishes demand the best possible wines to enhance their sensory and taste profile. The wine list has been designed keeping this in mind and features a huge selection of top quality wines (more than 500 labels appear on the list), many belonging to the cult or super-premium category.

The wine list has many other eye-catching features; one of them being the largest collection of Champagne in town; 30 in total, across all possible styles. It also has an enviable collection of fine wines from classical wine regions of France, Italy and Germany. The representation from the New World is mainly led by Australia and USA.

Le Cirque’s reputation in the Delhi fine dining market is as much about glitz, gloss and glamour as it is for the world-renowned food and an eclectic collection of wines. So, if your idea of a dining extravaganza involves pure luxury and you are not constrained by budget, this may be the right place for pampering your epicurean soul.

The wine list:

Main Feature: Sheer number and variety of labels from almost every wine region of the world.

Strengths: Focus on traditional strongholds of the Old World, namely France and Italy and a wide selection of types and styles from the New World.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 20 with a good balance of grape varieties and styles.

What to look out for (specials): More than 30 champagnes with all the recognisable names, styles and price points possible.

Food & Wine recommendations: The ‘Lobster Risotto’ with subtle infusions of rosemary and capers is a must try. Pair this iconic dish with your choice of a Vintage Champagne or an elegant white Burgundy from the extensive wine selection.

For those looking to try one of Le Cirque’s signature red meat items, the succulent ‘French Lamb Noisette’ is a must-try, paired with a New World Pinot Noir like the stylish Villa Maria Pinot Noir from New Zealand.

Price range: Expensive. A meal for two with wines would cost Rs. 16000 plus taxes, on an average, with most moderately priced wines and wine-by-the-glass. Depending on the kind of wines you consume and in most cases this amount is likely to be much higher.

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Cheers,

Niladri

A version of the following article was featured in Time Out Delhi’s special wine edition ‘The Grape Escape’, under the title Veni, Vidi, Vino. I am posting the original and unedited version here for the benefit of the readers of this blog.

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Wine Offerings

Wine & food partnership is the new mantra of modern gastronomy

Gone are the days when dining out in cosmopolitan India was mostly about the cuisine served in a restaurant. With fast evolution of the country’s F&B scene, that status quo has long been done away with, for good. Today diners seek much more than an aesthetically presented or even a sensuously delicious dish. And among all the added pleasures that make up great gourmet experiences, wine has emerged on the top of the savvy customer’s wish list.

Delhi has long been home to some of the country’s most iconic restaurant brands serving choicest of cuisines. While wine has been a part of the city’s restaurant scene for quite some time, the quality and variety of wine offerings have come of age in true sense in the last five years or so. Wine lists now not only boast of choicest international brands of the most desirable vintages, but are also thoughtfully designed to complement the cuisine, concept and theme of the restaurants. All these have been the result of the hospitality industry’s unflinching vision of cultivating a thriving wine culture in the country.

This steady evolution of world-class wine destinations has come as a boon for the city’s gourmands and its wine lovers in particular. But at the same time the proliferation of these ‘wine hubs’ has also resulted in a pleasant dilemma among wine consumers about the most suitable places to satiate their vinous senses along with their taste buds.

Whether you are looking for a sophisticated fine-dining experience featuring an exhaustive collection of wines from virtually every region of the wine world or wish to be pampered with a customised menu paired with wines, Delhi has many places which should be bookmarked in your dining itinerary. Let’s explore each of them individually.

In the first part of this article, let’s have a look at three restaurants which offer the best wine selections in the standalone category. The second part deals with restaurants in five star hotels:

Diva
M8, M Block Market, GK2, New Delhi

diva

Diva’s wine selection is impressive, not just for the variety but also for its pocket-friendliness

A shining star of Delhi’s standalone restaurant scene, Diva has long been one of the torchbearers of the city’s reputation as the gourmet hub of India. With one of the country’s most talented chefs at the helm, it has redefined the concept of dining out by inspiring foodies (and winos!) to think beyond five star hotels and upmarket, overly hyped restaurants.

Many Delhiites may not be aware of the fact that apart from being a ‘Chef Extraordinaire’, Ritu Dalmia is also a keen wine aficionado and possesses vast knowledge about the subject. This reflects in the wine list of the restaurant which stands out as much for its variety and attention to detail as the careful selection of labels to accompany the authentic Italian cuisine.

The wine list here is unpretentious albeit so well thought out that you will hardly find a dish on the food menu which cannot be paired with multiple wines. The highlight has to be the wines-by-the glass selection which features more than 30 different labels sold at extremely affordable prices. Additionally, and quite logically, the list smartly captures Italy’s wine portfolio by ensuring representation from almost all the country’s wine regions. There are also several other international wines, making it a well-rounded list.

The wine list:
Main Features: Extremely affordable pricing. Food-friendly international wines specially chosen to accompany Diva’s signature cuisine.

Strength: Wine selection from almost all the wine regions of Italy.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 30 odd labels offering excellent variety and depth. Very competitively priced.

What to look out for (specials): Weekend wine pairing with specially crafted dishes.

Food & wine recommendations: One of the must-try dish is ‘John Dory fillet dusted with Polenta, pan grilled, served with Celeriac puree and crispy Prawns’. Pair this with a bone-dry, fresh, floral and minerally Michele Chiarlo Gavi.

Another recommended dish is ‘Phyllo pastry bundles filled with Artichokes and Taleggio cheese, baked golden and served with a creamy Spinach sauce’. A light but pleasantly fruity Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino will partner the dish perfectly.

Price range: Moderate and extremely pocket-friendly. Meal for two, on an average, costs about Rs. 2000, plus taxes. A couple of glasses of wine consumed with the meal per head would cost another 1500.

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Indian Accent

77, The Manor, New Friends Colony, New Delhi

Indian Accent

The culinary magic of Indian Accent is well complemented by a well thought out wine list

If there is one Indian standalone restaurant worthy to be among the top Michelin star restaurants of the world, it undoubtedly has to be the Indian Accent. In this highly competitive business, such distinction can only be earned if there is a genuine passion to create a unique product of highest quality. And if passion indeed is the key ingredient in deciding a restaurant’s popularity and success; this place oozes plenty of it. No wonder, in a short period of time it has created a niche for itself in Delhi’s fine dining market.

Chef Manish Mehrotra and his team’s brilliance aside, Indian Accent also deserves a special mention for its outstanding wine list which can rival the best in the city. A quick look through the list is all it takes to realise the minute attention to detail that has been employed in selecting the labels. It is also apparent that this selection, in addition to the designing of the list, is entirely influenced by the cuisine and a style of modern cooking where international ingredients are innovatively married with Indian spices. A ‘Fois Gras stuffed Galawat’ or ‘Achari New Zealand Lamb Shank’ married with wines may sound too adventurous for the uninitiated but you will be surprised at the sensory delight of such combinations.

On the one hand, you will find a healthy number of fresh, crisp and aromatic white wines to accompany the light-on-the-palate dishes, on the other there are also a good collection of red wines across a wide spectrum of body, mouthfeel and weight on the palate to pair with the comparatively heavier items. Overall, the balance, variety and compatibility to the cuisine make it one of the best wine offerings in the capital.

The Wine list:
Main Features: Variety, balance and affordable wines.

Strength: Food inspired wines – in other words, each and every wine very carefully handpicked to accompany the nouvelle Indian cuisine
Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 32 labels selected with careful attention to the food menu, which is almost 50 % of the total wine offerings. One of the best wine-by-the-glass selections in town.

What to look out for (specials): Chef tasting menu paired with wine – fantastic way to sample the chef’s magic.

Food & wine recommendations: Among the classic food & wine pairings suggested in their Chef tasting menu, I really liked the idea of marrying the ‘Meetha achaar chilean spare ribs, sun dried mango, toasted kalonji seeds’ with a glass of Peter Lehmann Shiraz from Barossa Valley in Australia.

Another equally chef-recommended combination is ‘Tempered ricotta vada, pao bhaji, kafir lime butter pao (Chowpatty in a bowl)’ with a glass of Miguel Torres, Santa Digna, Sauvignon Blanc from Chile.

Price range: Moderate and affordable. Meal for two, on an average, costs about Rs. 4000, plus taxes. A couple of glasses of wine consumed with the meal per head would cost another 1500.

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Set’z
3rd Floor, DLF Emporio Mall, Nelson Mandela Marg, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi

setz

Set’z’s vast choice of food is matched by its wide selection of international wines

In spite of Delhi’s reputation as a major gastronomic destination of India, the burden of serving soul-stirring food and world-class beverages in an upmarket and chic environment always rested with the five star hotels. That was until Set’z (earlier avatar Zest) appeared in the city’s hospitality horizon, especially in the multi-cuisine segment. Since then it has acquired a reputation of being a game changer of sorts, inspiring a wave of independent F&B outlets trying to emulate its success as one of the most happening dining addresses in town.

Apart from the vast array of cuisines, the concept and theme of Set’z is perfectly suited for wine consumption and quite expectedly, the restaurant management has made it a prime focus in its overall service offerings. The customised and well-appointed wine cellar and tasting room at the entrance is one of the very few of its kind in Delhi and adds to the ‘wine ambience’ of the restaurant. The wine list is extensive (about 180 labels) and contemporarily designed with country-wise and varietal categorisation, making it easily navigable for most. It offers an excellent regional and style variation and one would be hard-pressed not to find a wine that cannot partner its vast selection of Indian and international food. Although, considering the size of the food menu, one would expect to find more wine-by-the-glass offers. Currently, the list only features 14.

The wine list:
Main Feature: Contemporarily designed menu with a wide selection to partner with the large selection of dishes.

Strength: Wines from classical wine regions.

Wine-by-the-glass Selection: 14 across types and styles, that are replaced with new labels every three months.

What to look out for (specials): Weekend brunches accompanied with Champagnes and sparkling wines. Alfresco dining at the terrace. Wine sampling at the customised cellar cum tasting room.

Food & wine recommendations: For fish lovers, the ‘Persley Crusted Sea Bass’ is not to be missed. The carefully cooked fillet retains the all-important moisture and juices while the light herb crust adds to the texture and flavour. A racy Burgundy like the Domain Hamelin Chablis will complement the dish perfectly.

Another good combination to indulge on is the ‘Braised lamb shank’ with moderately priced but elegant Bordeaux Blend, Chateau Malmaison.

Price range: Expensive. A meal for two with wines on an average costs about Rs. 12000 to 14000 plus taxes. This price will vary according to the type of wine ordered.

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Part two of this review article, which focusses on restaurants in five star hotels, can be accessed here.

Cheers,

Niladri

When I was recently informed about the latest WSET Level 3 results in India, for which the exams were held in Mumbai earlier this year, it was naturally a moment of happiness and fulfillment. After all nothing is more satisfying for a trainer and mentor than to realize that his efforts have helped ambitious young  professionals cross significant career milestones. This rewarding feeling is further accentuated when these individuals achieve their wine learning goals with flying colours and with a clear objective of standing out in the fast-evolving hospitality industry.

As per expectations and anticipation, three of my ex-trainees, Hardik Arora, Sagar Nath and Vivek Boddul, were not only successful in negotiating the challenge but also managed to pass the exam with high grades. While Hardik achieved ‘Distinction’, Sagar and Vivek were awarded ‘Merits’.

What is noteworthy is that all of them achieved this feat by spending their own hard-earned money (normally, these courses and exams are employer-sponsored). Mind you, these certifications do not come cheap – the Level 3 course costs almost 80,000 bucks (Rs. 75,000 + Taxes). So, all credit to these young professionals for being self-motivated and self-driven to make a mark for themselves.

Sagar was among the 18 handpicked F&B professionals who were a part of India’s most comprehensive wine training program in 2011 (ITC Hotels Ultimate Sommelier Programme followed by WSET Level 3 course). He left ITC Hotels within a few months following this training to pursue better career opportunities and hence could not take a shot at the exams that year. Hardik and Vivek, on the other hand, were a part of the 25 ITC Hotels resources who underwent a similar training in 2012, although in this edition (unlike 2011), the WSET exam was not a part of the entire training package. But that did not stop them from pursuing their dream of acquiring this certification on their own, and quite deservedly they got their reward this year.

I am sure this result will inspire other motivated individuals from across the country to make this valuable investment in their career in 2014, and beyond.

Here is a brief introduction of the three additions to the WSET Level 3 club in India this year:

Hardik Arora

Hardik Arora

Hardik is a graduate from Institute of Hotel Management, Chandigarh and currently a member of  the ITC Maratha F&B team. After finishing the three week-long training in New Delhi in mid 2012, he has been appointed as the sommelier-in-charge of the hotel’s Pan Asian restaurant. He is an ambitious individual who wants to carve a niche for himself in the Indian beverage industry.

“It is a dream come true” he says about the result. “The fact that I managed to get a distinction in both theory and tasting, makes this extra special for me. Now I wish to use this knowledge and skill to reach new career heights in the hospitality or wine industry. I strongly hope that the Level 3 qualification would be a turning point in my career.”

“Attending the Level 3 training and Ultimate Sommelier Programme has so far been the best professional experience of my life and I am confident that it will help me become a better wine professional. I look forward to your continued advice and guidance for developing my career as a beverage professional.”  the ambitious professional further adds.

Vivek Boddul

Vivek Boddul

Vivek Satyanarayan Boddul started his career with Oberoi Airport Services as a bartender. He moved to ITC Maratha after a 14 month stint with Oberoi. He has just been selected as a food & beverage management trainee with ITC Hotels.

“Selling premium wines is a prelude to an interesting turn my career took. The real passion of sommeliership ignited my mind when I was lucky to be a part of ITC Hotels advanced wine sommelier training which was mentored by Mr. Niladri Dhar. Subsequently Tulleeho organised the WSET level 3 program in Mumbai, which resulted in successfully completing the certification with merit rank.” he says enthusiastically.

He goes on to add “Looking forward to pursue my career in beverages preferably wines abiding to hotel industry. Simultaneously focussing on further qualification in wines and spirit to fine tune the existing knowledge by elevating the self to higher levels.”

Sagar Nath

Sagar Nath

Sagar Nath is an alumnus of the Institute of Hotel Management, Lucknow and currently resides in Mumbai. Since leaving ITC Hotels in late 2011, he has worked for two different wine importers. He was a Key Accounts Manager with Brindco when the results were announced.

This entrepreneurial wine lover says “WSET Level 3 is a dream which I always wanted to achieve. I am convinced that this will add a lot of value to my future career growth. Hopefully, I will also be able to make the most of my training and learning as a tool to spread awareness of the beverage. I want to be one of the ambassadors of wine in India.”

During his time in Mumbai, Sagar has spent a considerable time interacting with hotels about their wine  needs. He, like many of us in the industry, feels that quality wine training differentiates a good wine program from those which lack a winning edge. “We need many more trained and skilled professionals in the industry. My own experience of the training and now this qualification, proves how much difference quality training can make in understanding and appreciating wine.” he concludes.

Congratulations and best wishes to all three of them, and here’s hoping to see many more young professionals gaining such wine qualifications in the future.

Cheers,

Niladri

Wine has largely been a Western indulgence until the turn of this century, when, the rise of China and India, in addition to other Eastern economies, signaled a new happy hunting ground for the beautiful beverage. What are the factors that dictate wine’s stellar rise in popularity in this part of the world? Most importantly, is this emergence of a new ‘New World’ and sign of things to come in the world wine scene?

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In its long recorded history, the wine world has witnessed many defining eras which shaped up its cultural contours and market dynamics. The last two centuries have been particularly important in wine’s overall evolution. While the 19th century was marked by the advent of a much imitated classification system, spread of Vinifera vines outside Europe and the Phylloxera epidemic, the 20th century was shaped up by the great depression, emergence of the New World, rise and influence of the wine critic/writer and globalization of the beverage.

In recent times, and majority of the 21st century, three significant factors have influenced the wine market – the rise of the East as a major wine destination, preponderance of technology and social media in wine promotion and the global financial meltdown of 2008/09. While the latter was thankfully short-lived, and social media’s influence today spreads across every sphere of human lives, wine’s popularity in non-traditional wine drinking countries, especially in Asia, is somewhat intriguing and arouses curiosity.

Unlike their counterparts in Europe where wine has been an intrinsic part of the culture since time immemorial, the East’s (and especially its two behemoths, China and India) affection for the beverage is rather new-found and recent. With a few exceptions, quality wine-drinking in Asia does not even go back a decade. But one look at the popularity and growth trends, in addition to immense stature wine now enjoys in this part of the world, suggest that the East has definitely arrived on the wine scene.

So what explains this rise in popularity in such a short period of time, in what was once considered an ignorant market for wine?

To begin with, it is well-established and well-documented that Economic growth is in the core of China and India’s thirst for wine. But are there other associated and independent factors which have contributed to this new-found admiration for the beverage? Let’s explore:

# Demography >>> Rapid economic advancement and wealth generation in China and India has created a demography with high disposable incomes, mostly spent on the pleasures of life. This mostly comprises of an aspirational middle class and an outward-looking young generation – well-informed, well-traveled and cosmopolitan, who are as comfortable being global citizens as Indians or Chinese. Wine drinking may not come naturally to them but this section of the society  certainly fosters the desire to learn and adapt to new ways of life, a reason more and more young people are changing their drinking habits and switching to wine from other beverages.

# New paradigms of wine and food pairingold clichés are dead >>> One of the most significant developments of this era has been the debunking of many stereotypical food & pairing specifications, which has helped in promoting wines in countries where the local cuisines were earlier thought unfit for marrying with wine. Whether it is the lighter style of Pan-Asian food and its more complex variants involving redolent herbs and condiments, or the exotic aromas of Indian spices, wine’s compatibility with Asian cuisines are being defined anew and with renewed gusto.

On one hand, the proponents of ‘aromatic wines only for Asian food’ theory are having a re-look at their food & wine pairing approach, on the other, the hospitality industry is acting as the catalyst for this reform. One has to flip through the wine lists of luxury hotels and engage with professional sommeliers to realize the revolutionary changes that have taken place in the overall mindset of drinking a vast array of wine styles with local food.

Decoding Indian cuisine by individual spices helps in food pairing decisions. GSM blends and Zinfandels are good matches with dishes rich in sweet Indian spices

Decoding Indian cuisine by individual spices helps in food pairing decisions. GSM blends and Zinfandels are good matches with dishes rich in sweet Indian spices

Nowadays, it is commonplace to find wine lists which embrace and promote Zinfandels and Tempranillos with equal ease and confidence as the much favored Rieslings and Gewürztraminers.

# Accessibility to information and knowledge >>> Gone are the days when wine literature was confined to paperbacks and high-end, glossy magazines. Today there is hardly any information about wine which cannot be accessed online. Although a global phenomenon, Asians, especially in countries like India and China, have made knowledge gathering through internet a way of their lives. And quite understandably, this has resulted in a new-age way of wine learning, which in turn is aiding the spread of a healthy wine culture.

The demand for wine knowledge has also resulted in the birth of a thriving wine media, both online and print, which are acting as information hubs for the knowledge seeking folks.

# Quality training and education >>> During the last decade, the level of formal wine education and training for trade and general wine appreciation programs for the consumer have improved considerably. Education providers like the WSET have proliferated throughout the two countries, uplifting the overall awareness of wine. Additionally, there are many private organizations which offer regular wine sampling and food pairing courses to the urban wannabe enthusiasts. All these have contributed in the learning and promotion of wine.

Training and wine appreciation workshops are playing a vital role in creating a healthy wine culture

Training and wine appreciation workshops are playing a vital role in creating a healthy wine culture

# Rapid urbanization >>> According to findings by McKinsey Global Institute in 2010, both China and India are experiencing unprecedented urbanization, resulting in noticeable churns in almost every sphere of life in these geographies. Wine, being a part of urban lifestyle, is probably one of the few highly desirable consumer products which has directly benefited from this social transformation.

# Rise of the Sommelier >>> The hospitality sector which propels the wine juggernaut in the two countries has taken a leaf out of their American and European counterparts in projecting the sommelier as a worthy wine ambassador. Today it is commonplace to find certified and professionally trained sommeliers in branded restaurants all over the region.

Armed with technical expertise and passion for the subject, these sommeliers (and other wine professionals) have become the de-facto wine evangelists capable of influencing wine drinking habits in their respective geographies. Many of them regularly appear in the media also to share the virtues of wine drinking and their overall enjoyment.

# Wine Events >>> China, led by Hong Kong and Shanghai, has undoubtedly become an important wine events destination of the world. Whether it is Vinexpo, numerous trade events, high profile fine-wine dinners hosted by who’s who of the wine industry or events organized by various wine-producing countries’ trade bodies, each has contributed to the wine buzz in the country.

Wine events like the annual Vinexpo have significantly contributed to wine’s popularity in China

Wine events like the annual Vinexpo have significantly contributed to wine’s popularity in China

India, in comparison, is yet to become a hot international events destination, although in the last couple of years the country has witnessed many high profile wine dinners, niche consumer events and wine festivals. Reputed names like the Hospices de Beaune, top Bordeaux chateaux and many acclaimed producers from across the world have included India as part of their annual Asian itinerary.  These have prepared the groundwork for many such future events, in addition to generating heightened interest among the wine loving community in the country.

# Wine as a health drink >>> Health benefits of wine is an in-vogue topic in the mainstream as well as wine media in the two countries. With cardiac diseases on the rise in this part of the world and severe medical stigma attached to spirit consumption, wine, with its heart-friendly qualities has found a large dedicated fan following.

Wine’s soaring popularity in India and China and its impact on their drinking culture and trade has firmly placed the two countries on the world wine map. Experts believe, and rightly so, that in spite of many ‘teething problems’ like fraudulent practices and fakery in China and highly discriminatory and restrictive taxation regime on imported wines in India, the two countries have demonstrated all the potential to become worthy torch bearers of the East’s wine renaissance. There is every indication that this new-found affection will culminate in a life-long relationship.

Cheers,

Niladri

This post is in response to an article which appeared in the delWine website a few days ago. While it eruditely laid down the hype and commercial implications of wine ratings, the selective role of Robert Parker as a wine critic emerged as one of the highlights of the piece. This gives us an opportunity to find out what India thinks about the emperor of wine and what does his ratings mean to the Indian wine business?

Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

Robert Parker Jr. is probably the most celebrated wine critic of all times. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

It is inevitable that whenever wine ratings are discussed, Robert Parker, by default, becomes the focal point, and it is no different in the mentioned article also. No one in the knowledge of the world wine industry can deny the influence of his ratings on the trade. I have personally written and spoken about this at different forums, particularly his expertise and fascination with a few chosen wine regions and their wines (Bordeaux and California happen to be on the top).

To understand Robert Parker’s eminence as a wine critic, one has to study the man’s rise following the pronouncements of 1982 Bordeaux vintage. He was probably the only expert who stuck his neck out in conviction about the quality of  this vintage when most others wrote-off the year as average. The fact that it turned out to be one of the best vintages of  the century in subsequent tastings, was a vindication of his unquestionable tasting abilities. Incidentally, most who disagreed with him in the beginning had to fall in line with his ratings. This was not only the start of the making of ‘Robert Parker brand’ but also a sign of things to come for the future – the emergence of the ultimate wine critic in true sense, a cult-like figure who possesses a unique ability to affect wine price indices with a single whiff, sip and stroke of his pen.

Like most critics, in addition to a large army of dedicated followers, he has his fair share of detractors too, who feel that ‘Parkerization’ of the wine world has done more harm than good to wine’s cause. While many call him biased and manipulative, there are also those who feel that he is the best thing that could have happened to the modern wine world.

But in spite of Parker’s standing as one of the tallest authorities of wine ratings in rest of the wine world, his influence in affecting drinking habits and the trade in India is almost non-existent. The Parker effect, if any, happens indirectly and outside the country’s boundaries where prices are decided as per his ratings. Inside India, so far there has been no indication of any significant impact of his ratings and reviews.

Why Parker and his ratings are not important in the current Indian wine scene:

1.)  We are not a fine wine consuming nation, which happens to be Parker’s strongest domain. The consumption of wines rated 90+ and more by him is limited to a miniscule part of the wine drinking community in this country (price and availability being the two main reasons). Although there is no data to suggest how small this segment might be, it can be safely assumed that it is in the sub-zero percentage, when compared to the overall price brackets.

The same is true when it comes to collectible and investment grade wines.

2.)  Overwhelming majority of Indian wine consumers do not know the break-up and significance of the 100-point rating scale. Therefore  all the talk about a wine’s placement in the market just based on Robert Parker’s scores does not make any difference. At the most, it is nothing more than a numbers game which only the wine importers like to highlight as strong selling  propositions to the top hotels

3.)  One of the major areas of Parker’s influence is a category which belongs to the futures trade (En Primeur). Since this segment hardly features in the Indian trade, his ratings of these wines are of little or no consequence to the market in the country

4.)  In contrary to suggestions made in the article, even the hospitality industry does not consider it necessary to factor-in Parker or Wine Spectator ratings when selecting wines for their portfolio. Appellation, vintage and brand recognition play much more significant roles in wine selections. Therefore, the reason a 2000 Chateau Petrus ends up in a luxury hotel’s wine list is because the name has a tremendous brand value, belongs to a famous Bordeaux Right Bank appellation (Pomerol) and is from a great vintage. The fact that Parker scored this a perfect 100 is most likely to be a mere coincidence. Now, please don’t suggest that 2000 turned out to be a great vintage because of Parker’s ratings!

Why is this so? Simply because the role of critics in our drinking habits is negligible, to say the least. Ask any sommelier in the country and they will confirm that wines are never sold or selected based on critics’ ratings.

Now coming back to the article in question, and why I was tempted to express my views on the subject. Here are two examples from the article:

Example 1.

delWine1

I feel, this is just over the top! There was a time when this statement would have been true to a large extent but to suggest that he ‘single-handedly controls the wine rating system’ is unreasonable in today’s context. Thanks to many other equally capable (if not more) critics and credible wine review sites, it is no longer a one man show. Nowadays, many serious wine consumers and fine wine investors refer to multiple reviews and ratings before choosing their wines.

Leading wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com have realized this fact and it is becoming more and more common to find multiple ratings for a particular wine:

Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com

Based on consumer demands, it is common to find multiple ratings for wines on top wine websites like Wine-Searcher.com

Example 2.

delWine2

The statement above is only partially true. No doubt that such scores are likely to add to the wine’s commercial value, but there are many wines scored 90 and below by Parker which are considered great value for money (better quality to price ratio). Additionally, there are also those which receive better scores later, following a period of bottle-aging. Generally, Parker mentions about the likely evolution of certain lower scoring wines into better products, in his tasting notes.

The rise and influence of the wine critic in conventional wine cultures is best exemplified by Robert Parker. An institution in himself, he has re-written the rules of the game which, many believe, will be the cornerstone of wine critiquing business for a long time to come. But as new wine cultures are born and new market dynamics emerge, Parker’s legacy may not have the same relevance. India is one such market where the man with ‘The Million Dollar Nose’ is yet to make a mark. Only time will tell if the Parker brand is able to mesmerise the Indian wine lover in times to come as it has for decades in other parts of the world.

Cheers,

Niladri

So you are a Riesling fan but never drink a wine made from this grape from anywhere else other than Germany or Alsace? Your favourite red is Bordeaux Blend from the eponymous region and you think it is waste to drink such a wine from any other region of the world? You are one of those who feel that the epitome of elegance in a Burgundy Pinot Noir makes every other Pinot simply plonks in comparison? The very thought of drinking a Sangiovese from Australia makes you tizzy? And when it comes to sparkling wines, you are militantly biased against anything else apart from Champagne?

As much out-of-place these may sound in this globalized age, where wine appreciation has transcended geographical boundaries (remember British Palate Vs. American Palate, which is of little interest today?), it is still not uncommon to encounter hardcore and blindfolded loyalty to wines made in particular regions.

Talking about myself…

I was no different until about seven years ago, as a fresh student of the subject and a ‘newbie’ in the field of wine tasting and appreciation. I suffered from this naive tendency of comparing wines from classical wine regions with those which have adopted the same grape varieties, but not necessary the styles. And most often, I would blindly trivialize the latter for being not-at-par to their Old World counterparts.

Have I learnt my lessons?

You bet! Looking back, this ignorance was solely the result of little knowledge and awareness, but now, after upgrading my wine learning and drinking hundreds of wines from many wine regions, and of many styles and genres, I have realized how incomplete and ill-informed wine drinker I was.

So how does one differentiate between styles and appreciate uniqueness of each?

To start with, the intrinsic character (aromas and flavours) of a wine grape hardly changes with regional variation. Be it the black fruit and crème-de-cassis like characters of Cabernet, Riesling’s floral aromas, Chenin blanc’s grated green apple notes or Grenache’s sweet & spicy berry flavours, the primary nature of the grape remains intact irrespective of where it has grown. It’s only the wine-growing conditions (terroir, in technical terms), along with wine-making practices which alter the styles of the final product.

While it will need an entire book to compare the distinct characteristics of similar wines from different regions, I have chosen three most common grape varieties known to produce clearly distinguishable wines when grown outside their traditional environments. For each, I have laid down the characters of both the Old and New World variants, along with a brief conclusion outlining their merits. The idea is to demonstrate the uniqueness and speciality of every style.

1.) Pinot Noir:  This is one grape variety which arouses the most intense passions in terms of their regional following. Terroir in its true sense is most passionately debated whenever this grape is in question. In its home in Burgundy, the quality wines display elegant, layered aromas, mixed with the signature ethereal touch. Except in very warm vintages, the tannins are never too matured and fruits not too ripe (jammy wines in Burgundy’s top echelons would almost be a sin!). Overall, the producers here aim to make complex, age-worthy Pinots which exemplify balance.

A typical Old World Burgundy Pinot Noir Vs. a New World style from Central Otago

A typical Old World Burgundy Pinot Noir Vs. a New World style from Central Otago

In New World regions like Central Otago of New Zealand, the winemakers seldom aim to make their Pinot Noirs in the traditional Burgundian style. Rather, the aim is to let the fruit express itself as much as possible (fruit-forward, in other words). The grapes are normally left longer on the vine to achieve optimum ripeness, resulting in richer wines with silkier tannins. A lot of New World Pinots also have attractive (darker) colours and more elements of ripe dark berries in addition to the usual red fruits (red currants, strawberries, raspberries and red plums). The objective is never to make investment-grade ‘fine wines’ but a product which is enjoyed young and with a wide range of food.

Conclusion: Red Burgundy’s USP is its sheer power of seduction and unique style associated with the appellation it is grown in, which very few regions can match, more so when the grape variety happens to be the fussy Pinot Noir. But that does not take away the credit from the New World Pinots which have created their own distinct profile and are admired for their easy approachability and expressive nature.

If Burgundy is synonymous with raw pleasure and ‘beauty-in-complexity’, the New World Pinot Noirs are enjoyed for their down-to-earth charm and unpretentious character.

2.) Syrah/Shiraz: Syrah is to northern Rhone what Cabernet Sauvignon is to Medoc. Its reputation as one of the noblest grapes of France is best represented in the wines from such venerable appellations as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The fact that the New World’s most famous wine from Syrah/Shiraz, the modern-day Penfolds Grange, started its journey to fame as ‘Grange Hermitage’, bears testimony the stature of the wines from Rhone Valley (Hermitage appellation of Northern Rhone represented the benchmark style of Syrah).

Two wines grown in very different conditions producing varying & unique styles

Two wines grown in very different conditions producing varying & unique styles

Rhone Syrah, and especially those from the top appellations, is known for its powerful structure and a complex, but highly attractive, aroma profile. These benchmark examples are characterized by plenty of dark berry aromas with varying notes of mocha, dark chocolate, minerals & wet red earth and smoke, along with distinct peppery spice. A lot of these wines may be highly perfumed when co-fermented with the local white speciality, Viognier (and Marsanne & Rousanne, occasionally). The tannins are always sturdy without being offensive and so is the acidity. Their full body and rich mouthfeel are extremely addictive.

Its new world counterparts are scattered throughout – from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand to Washington State in the US, from Western Cape in South Africa to almost all the regions of Australia; each specialising in their own unique styles of Syrah/Shiraz. But among all these, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia have created specific and distinct styles which attract a huge fan following world over’. These range from pure & highly extracted ‘fruit bombs’ to more serious wines with plenty of varietal characters as well as secondary aromas of sweet spices, chocolate, licorice and savoury fruit candies. Owing to the warm growing conditions, most have ripe tannins and high alcohol (which, sometimes is so much that the all important balance is compromised), resulting in warm and heavy mouthfeel. But when well-made, these wines are extremely delicious.

Conclusion: It is once again apparent that the Rhone Syrah, being a product of the traditional genre, is more of a classic style – not on-your-face, lean, complex, food-friendly and made to age gracefully.

Now, should this style be taken as the ultimate representation of Syrah/Shiraz? Not if the ones from South Australia are also admired for their individuality displayed by the highly expressive fruit, silky and smooth tannins, rich mouthfeel and full body. Are these traits not to be enjoyed in a wine?

3) Riesling: Riesling, like Pinot Noir, is quite fastidious about its choice of growing conditions. A cool climate variety, it expresses itself fully only when the existing growing conditions are optimum. Germany is the spiritual home of Riesling as its terroir is best suited to its existence. In the classic German regions of Mosel, Rheingau and Nahe, Riesling thrives in many varied microclimates, producing a vast array of styles. The unique characters of quality German Rieslings are inimitable – exotic floral notes, layers of citrus fruits, wet stones and minerals and kerosene-like notes with prominent steely acidity. Riesling’s unique ability to shine in sweeter styles is also well recognised in German wines.

A classic German Riesling & a New World variant

A classic German Riesling & a New World variant

While Alsace and Austria add to the Old World’s portfolio, the New World’s contribution to the worldwide Riesling production is still far and few. Some noticeable regions which have triumphed in creating particular styles of their own include Oregon and Washington states in the US, Marlborough and Central Otago in New Zealand and northern reaches of South Australia – mainly Clare and Eden Valleys. Instead of being intensely floral and minerally, which is the core hallmark of German, Alsatian and Austrian Rieslings, these wines display more fruit characters – grapefruit, apples, nectarine etc. along with citrus blossoms. Some good examples also show hints of flint-like minerals, and most also maintain their fresh acidity.

Conclusion: Germany is blessed with growing conditions that are typically suited to Riesling and naturally the wines demonstrate unmatchable finesse and quality. But over the years, many New World wine regions have also successfully crafted their own styles which have won worldwide acclaim and acceptance.

Genuine wine lovers, like gourmands, are known to be adventurous in their drinking habits and that’s what separates a wine drinker from the rest. The ability to enjoy a wide range of styles and types of wines is the innate quality of genuine wine consumers. One may not like a particular wine due to factors like a less-than-average vintage, poor wine-making and substandard storage & cellaring, but these do not make a style of wine irrelevant or unacceptable.

Cheers,

Niladri

I wrote the following article for the delWine/Indian wine Academy website, which appeared under the title ‘Restaurant ratings can be misleading unlike wine‘.

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Vir Sanghvi’s latest article about the challenging exercise of rating restaurants deals with many valid issues, but also raises some extremely relevant questions  about the way such ratings are conducted and awards are decided.

Among other issues highlighted in the write-up related to likely aberrations in these ratings, one particular sentence calls for special introspection – “Our own awards, the HT Crystals are also far from perfect. The main awards are voted for by the readers of HT City so you can’t quibble with the people’s choices but honestly, public opinion can be strange!” Here, it is clear that the Hindustan Times sponsored main awards (like many others) are basically ‘People’s Choice Awards’ where the winners are decided by the number of votes they attract from the public.

Next, let’s consider who constitute the ‘public opinion’ in this case. Ideally it should be those who have either visited the restaurant or read and thoroughly grasped the reviews about its offerings and service. Anyone who does not fulfill these criteria is not fit to make an informed decision about rating a restaurant. And certainly not those who couldn’t care less about a restaurant’s placement in the market, like my aunt, for whom Orient Express and Wasabi are nothing more than a famous train and a Sushi accompaniment respectively!

Needless to mention that to rate a product or service objectively, one has to be aware of them to start with, otherwise there will always be concerns about the usefulness of such awards as a guide to great dining options. Most importantly, the award organisers need to plug any loophole to ensure right people expressing their views. At the moment, this shortcoming may be getting overlooked.

Consider a probable scenario (which, by the way, is not a figment of any imagination) – as soon as the restaurants are shortlisted for a category, a scramble starts to gather as many votes as possible for a particular restaurant brand. Emails start floating inside the organisation asking employees, their friends and relatives to vote. Wherever unlimited SMS voting is permitted, it is encouraged to avail the facility to ensure that their chosen restaurant gets the maximum number of votes. Traditional workplaces where social media sites are not accessible, special provisions are made to enable employees to go to sites like Facebook to cast their votes. This practice does not seem too different from reality TV shows where the results are based on frenzied SMS voting, but isn’t it ironical to relegate the measurement of a restaurant’s stature to mere numbers?

While allowing employees to vote for their own restaurant is itself questionable, when others who have no way of determining the quality of a restaurant become a part of this ‘public opinion’, the entire exercise is bound to attract scrutiny. Can ratings based on the participating organisation’s own votes (staff + their family members & friends) be helpful to offer credible dining options to customers?

Such a model of rating restaurants is also likely to unfairly favour a large organisation which has aggressively generated internal votes. This is more likely to be relevant in close contests where the top F&B destination may be decided by a margin of few votes. Having said that, it will be a mistake to assume that all awards or category of awards are likely to be affected by this model of rating. Restaurants like Wasabi, Taipan, Dum Pukht, Indigo and La Piazza among others, have consistently proven their worth to make it to the top of the award charts and mass popularity, and quite deservedly so, irrespective of any minor anomalies in the rating system.

It should also be borne in mind that this by no means is an India only phenomenon. Even the most coveted of all restaurant awards, the Michelin star, has had to face charges of inconsistent rating system apart from other allegations of undue favouritism and bias.

In a nutshell, and in the light of the above challenges, no wonder user review sites like Tripadvisor and Zomato have become so popular for they have brought a level of transparency the hospitality industry so badly needs. As the Indian dining culture evolves and customers have more say in fixing accountability of the hospitality trade, the day is not far when actual customer feedback will be the deciding factor in a restaurant’s success or otherwise.

Lastly, as a wine professional I cannot help but compare the above model with highly recognised wine ratings and awards from around the world, although the dynamics are quite different for each; wine ratings are more objective and scientific while restaurant ratings are subjective and based on unique perceptions. Here I only mean those awards where the wines are tasted blind and judged on a variety of factors and in like-to-like categories.

In spite of the effectiveness of these ratings the wine industry world over is also adapting itself to accommodate user reviews. Websites like CellarTracker are playing a pioneering role in this field and have given a voice to wine consumers world over, which no one can ignore.

Cheers,

Niladri

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