Delhi’s top wine destinations – part one

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

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The curious case of India & China’s love for wine

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

Common myths about the Indian wine industry

Acknowledgement: The following article originally appeared on the delWine website and I am reproducing the content as it appears on the site.

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MythAlthough there are several myths about wine in India that have been addressed from time to time, there are many common myths about its nascent wine industry that could give a wrong perspective to those wishing to enter the Indian wine market, writes Niladri Dhar who is associated with the industry as an educator and manager in the hospitality business.

The noted French philosopher Roland Gerard Barthes once said “Myth is neither a lie nor a confession, it is an inflexion”. It is extraneous what the myth actually is, what really matters is the way it is used to influence thoughts and ideas.

During my association with the wine industry, I have come across many common myths involving the beverage but the most prevalent ones related to the Indian context are worth looking at in detail to appreciate how they affect wine’s placement in our society.

Indian wines are mediocre: It is like saying all French wines are great. Whilst we should be modest to admit that most of our domestic wines have a long way to go in terms of their quality (and consistency, which in my view is by far a bigger issue), it is unfair to assume that there are no exceptions.

The likes of Fratelli-especially their Sette label, the earlier avatar of Grover’s La Reserva and newbies like York, Reveilo and Zampa are some examples which defy this myth, hands down. They have demonstrated that India is capable of producing good quality wines displaying regional characters and comparable to their peers from other parts of the world.

India’s wine market is booming: It will be naive to deny that India’s wine consumption is on a steady rise but at the same time it is also misleading to suggest that the country’s wine economy is experiencing an unprecedented boom (irrespective of different market dynamics, comparison to Hong Kong, China and even Brazil’s wine success is inevitable in this context).

This myth represents a classic example of riding the ‘India growth story’ bandwagon, the domestic wine news-starved media’s attempt to sensationalise an issue which does not have a credible source. The media is awash with all sorts of, mostly regurgitated, growth figures and we often come across them in wine stories. But are these scientifically derived? Who came up with such numbers and what is their basis? Can anyone take the onus of confirming them? Are these data derived from the HORECA sector only and if yes, how credible are the numbers, as it is a well-known fact that hotels as well as vendors are not known to share all their data with the outside world? These are some uncomfortable but relevant questions which need to be answered if one has to make sense of the growth stories.

Easing of tax and duties alone will take care of India’s wine woes: No doubt the atrocious tax and duty regimes have been the biggest impediment in the success of wine in India. But to think that once, if ever, these are liberalised the wine industry will see the dawn of a stupendous growth period, is overly ambitious. Let’s face it, the wine culture we blatantly brag about is still limited to the creamy layer of the society generally within the confines of five star hotels and to some extent, wine clubs in big cities and as long as wine does not have a wider reach, we cannot expect to be in the league of top wine performers.

Then there are obvious challenges in the form of limited number of credible wine training and education providers, absence of a robust retail sector and a general tendency to club wine with other alcoholic beverages and the associated stigmas attached to it. All of these have to be addressed to improve our standing in the world wine scene.

Big and premium is always better in restaurant wine lists: There is a general tendency in India to shower accolades on wine lists which contain hundreds of labels packed with high-end brands. The more Cru classé Bordeauxs, Grand & Premier Cru Burgundies, Cult Californians and Super Tuscans you have on a list, the more likely it is to be considered ‘Fabulous’ and ‘World-class’.

But in fact, an ideal wine list should be all about achieving the right balance of regions/appellations, grapes/blends, price points and compatibility with the restaurant’s menu, which in turn will allow the guests to make informed decisions without getting overwhelmed by the volume and prices. In short, a truly world-class wine menu should be a right mix of variety, balance, eloquence in its descriptions and matching the restaurant’s theme.

High mark-up in 5 star hotels is responsible for wine’s limited reach: Whilst this argument cannot be trashed altogether, it is unjustified to put the blame squarely on top hotels. 5 star F&B destinations normally cater to the wealthy lot of the society and most businesses are smart to price their products as per the spending capacity of their guests. Why should they lose out on revenues when those buying the wines are willing to pay the price? Also, it is misplaced to comprehend that those who cannot afford to dine in 5 star restaurants will start flocking these places once the wine prices are lowered. Apart from wine, the prices of every product and services in 5 star hotels are not affordable for the common man.

Wine does not go well with Indian food: This seems like a never-ending cliché. A time when new and unconventional practices are taking shape and food & wine pairing is bucking all the traditional trends, this age-old misconception needs to be looked at through a different prism.

Contrary to common belief, most Indian spices can be married with wine’s flavour components. The trick is to break down the dishes to the last spice so that the flavour characteristics become apparent. This knowledge is often enough to pair wines correctly although knowing the cooking process will also help in deciding the choice of wine – a smoky Kebab straight from the Tandoor will need a wine with some degree of matching smokiness to balance the overall profile. Lastly, the texture and body of the food should match the same in the wine.

The role of a Sommelier in India: This is by itself one of the biggest myths of our industry. ‘Sommelier’ in India is often an inappropriately overused and misconstrued designation alluded to anyone dealing with the beverage – be it a person simply pouring wine in a restaurant, so called a ‘Wine Taster’, anyone with any wine qualification irrespective of its relevance to a Sommelier’s profile or at times even a wine marketer.

In simple terms, a genuine Sommelier is a wine specialist who is capable of offering expert advice on a broad range of wine related topics. He should ideally also have a matching qualification to back-up his practical skills.