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

The great Indian obsession with the ‘Sommelier’

SommelierI often wonder why we Indians, especially in the media, hospitality and wine industry, are so obsessed with the word Sommelier. Whether it is a wine related analysis in a national newspaper, an article in a lifestyle magazine or myriad of profiles on social media and professional network websites, it seems to be omnipresent. Not that there is anything wrong with this obsession but the way it is frequently used is the contentious part.

With a few genuine exceptions, it is an inappropriately overused term which often overlooks the specialist nature of a Sommelier’s role in the contemporary wine and hospitality business. Why is this so?  Is it because it comes across as a ‘posh’ (as one of my friends recently suggested), in-vogue and highly saleable jargon or simply because its blatant and rampant use as a tool for self-branding has struck a positive note with the masses and media in large? In my view it is a mix of all these plus an easy way of influencing a young and nascent wine culture. The fact that it is a French word makes it more chic, probably!

Mind you, when used correctly and thoughtfully, the usage of the word Sommelier should only be reserved for wine professionals with requisite credentials and/or training. It shouldn’t be an honorary title but a professional designation. Also, one has to earn a Sommelier’s position, not just claim to be one. I have come across many instances where the concept of a Sommelier is awfully misrepresented – whether it is to describe anyone who conducts wine sampling sessions to even untrained F&B professionals in five-star hotels who pour wine on the table. Whilst they may not be able to perform any other tasks expected of a professional Sommelier, a capable Sommelier on the other hand will be able to carry out both the tasks effortlessly, in addition to all other specialized roles he/she is trained to do.

I have also recently come across another media speak used for describing Sommeliers, and once again it is not representative of a Sommelier’s complete profile.  I am referring to the term ‘Wine Taster’. Whilst tasting a wine to deduce information about it is just a part of  a Sommelier’s overall repertoire, it is amateurish (and misleading, to some extent) to use the term to portray professional Sommeliers.

So, who is a Sommelier?

Court of Master Sommeliers

First of all, a formal training is a must which can be acquired from professional Sommelier organisations like the  Court of Master Sommeliers. This is a vital differentiator which separates the wheat from the chaff. Engage in a serious wine talk with the wine guy during your next dinner out and you will know what I mean. A genuine Sommelier will be authoritative, confident and most importantly will be highly knowledgeable (but modest) about the world of wine and beverages.

Those who do not have a formal qualification can also be in the league of professional Sommeliers provided they have undergone an extensive training and mentorship program under a duly certified and experienced Sommelier,  and are directly responsible  for influencing the wine program of their hotel/restaurant.

Apart from the mandatory training and qualification, a professional Sommelier should also be able to skillfully perform the following:

  • Offer expert wine advice and service to customers in a fine-dining environment
  • Pair wine and food thoughtfully and ensuring perfect harmony between the two
  • Conduct effective wine sampling and training sessions
  • Create effective wine lists
  • Conduct profitable wine promotions
  • Be at ease with inventory management, wine storage requirements and cellaring techniques
  • Be efficient in costing, forecasting and ordering and other beverage control specifications
  • Be abreast with the latest trends in the wine industry, especially vintage conditions in different parts of the wine world
  • Be adequately informed about other beverages and cigars (if it is a part of the establishment’s offerings)

I am often referred to as a Sommelier and as much as I like to be called one, I have to be honest in admitting that there are occasions when I feel more comfortable to be known simply as a wine professional. This at least ensures that I do not fall into the category of media created and self-proclaimed Sommeliers.

Cheers,

Niladri