Biased wine drinker = Ill-informed wine drinker

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

Introducing the latest Champagne Scholarship winner from India

Sommelier Kathiravan
Sommelier Kathiravan Govindaraj

A brief post to announce and introduce the winner of the Champagne Scholarship, India, for this year.

As is well known within the industry, the WSET, along with Bureau du Champagne started offering this prestigious scholarship last year (Ravi Joshi won it in 2012) to an Indian candidate who has performed exceedingly well in the WSET Level 3 exam and who displays a strong commitment to the subject. Apart from the score in Level 3, the selection process for this award involves completing a written questionnaire to the selectors’ satisfaction followed by interviews. This selection process started in the last quarter of 2012 and the final result was recently declared.

It is with profound sense of pride and pleasure I introduce this year’s winner, Kathiravan Govindaraj, Sommelier extraordinaire of Sheraton Park Hotel, Chennai. Kathiravan was a part of the 18 ITC Hotels resources who underwent the comprehensive 45-day Level 3 wine training program conducted by yours truly at ITC Maurya in August/September 2011 (the first part of the comprehensive training initiatives in the organization). He was always the star performer during the training and internal assessments as well as in the WSET Level 3 exam, which he passed with a distinction (the only candidate to have achieved this in the group). Also, following the training he used his wine learning to very good effect in the hotel where he is the leading Sommelier, winning many guest accolades in addition to improving the wine sales. In fact, he is one of the most wine-focused F&B professionals within the ITC Hotels chain now.

The scholarhip will give him the opportunity to travel to the Champagne region for a comprehensive study tour.

I feel particularly proud to have trained and mentored Kathiravan throughout my time with ITC Hotels and this scholarship is almost like a parting gift for me. Now I hope that he uses this rare opportunity to propel his wine career in India. We need more dedicated wine professionals like him in the country.

Well done Kathir…see you on top!

Cheers,

Niladri

Political correctness – is the wine world setting a (negative) trend?

As part of an annual ritual, I was taking stock of the year gone by, in terms of the wine media’s role in highlighting issues which impact the larger wine community. While there was no dearth of regular ‘hot topics’ (the En Primeur campaign, effect of global warming on the wine industry, acquisitions and dumping of brands, et al.), it was probably the Asian (read Chinese) juggernaut which created the most storm. But amidst all these, one story particularly stood out in terms of underscoring the rampant political correctness which exists in various quarters of the wine world, mainly dwelled by self-proclaimed custodians of standard wine industry ‘rules’.

I am referring to the thought-provoking findings of Tim Hanni MW, published late last year, regarding the taste preferences of majority of common wine consumers. In a nutshell, the study busted the popular myth that people with liking for drier (and intense) style of wines have more evolved and refined palate than those who prefer a degree of sweetness in their liquid. To make matters even more unpalatable for the ‘PC brigade’, it also suggested that ‘distinct physiological differences in human sensory anatomy indicates that the people with the greatest taste sensitivity may well indeed be White Zinfandel drinkers and not the consumers of highly rated, intense red wines’. You can find all about the story here.

Is the wine world too stuffy with clichés and stereotypes? Are ideas and thoughts only ‘innovative’ and ‘groundbreaking’ if they tow the conventional beliefs? Is the wine intelligentsia too obsessed with set conventions? And most importantly, do these set beliefs negatively impact wine consumer’s choices and drinking behaviours?

Those (including me, of course) who feel that wine should be enjoyed on one’s own terms, will equivocally reply in the affirmative to the above, whereas they might simply be preposterous to many on the other side of the spectrum.

Although Hanni’s revelations were by no means representative of the larger wine world’s preferences, it did throw up some interesting facts which cannot be discounted or dismissed. But that is exactly what emerged out of some of the reactions which followed the publication of the study. One that stood out for me was a discussion on the Purple Pages forum. The gentleman who started the thread on this topic, termed him a ‘publicity-seeking loon’ and a ‘charlatan and mad’. Although the Queen of Wine rightly rebutted these statements subsequently, it did leave a bitter taste in the mouth and proved the point that extreme political correctness is indeed existent and has its roots in a system too rigid to encourage emancipation in wine enjoyment.

Talking of personal experiences; one of my earlier posts on Champagne generated sharp reactions on a professional networking forum, merely because it suggested that Champagne is an overrated wine (a belief I still firmly hold, albeit with exceptions). Too offbeat and scandalous a thought perhaps!!

Another incident which springs to mind was during a corporate dinner, where, as the sommelier, I recommended a full-bodied Grenache-dominated blend from southern Rhone with a spicy Indian seekh kebab. I was convinced that this was a great match as the intensity of this wine married well with the spices and neither the food nor the wine dominated each other. But the cliché that ‘Indian-food-goes-well-with-Gewurztraminer’ was so strong that the majority in the room were too apprehensive to give it a try. So they decided to stick to the Gewurz. A couple of months later I received an email from one of the attendees praising my recommendation, which she tried in an up-market restaurant while travelling as a tourist in India. The mail was CCd to most who attended that dinner…Deja vu!

The wine world has come a long way since the days when archaic rules, such as ‘white wine with white meat’, dictated wine drinking habits. Many schools of thought, endorsing various ways of enjoying wine, have since evolved, which are helping enthusiasts to make informed choices, and all this bodes very well for the wine industry. Let’s hope this trend continues and political correctness prevails.

Cheers,

Niladri