WINE TALK: An Indian Dummies guide to understanding wine( Part 1: white wine grape varietals)

My first wine tasting experience was on a cold afternoon in December 2003, I was 21 relishing my first experience of living in the mighty USA. 2003 was an iconic unforgettable year of many “firsts”- like seeing snow for the first time, sharing a flat for the first time with an English and Argentinean girl( who were later to become my dearest friends), eating a bagel for the first time, trying and failing miserably to snowboard for the first time and finally tasting that first glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, NZ.

For someone who, in college days, would get happily high on a Bacardi Breezer or pint of beer, I was nervous & excited. I wasn’t sure of the right words to use for descriptions in tasting notes; I was scared about getting “too” drunk, I was afraid of not having the “right” answers. Well, here’s the good thing about wine tastings: there is no correct answer and there are no correct tasting notes.  The great thing about wine tastings is that they are so personal and subjective to individual tastes. While we can’t always guarantee that you won’t get tipsy, it’s a great learning experience with oodles of fun. Just remember you always have the option of using the spittoon, in case you feel a particular grape isn’t to your liking or worried about getting too high!

Its important to have a conducive setting for a wine tasting, the Europeans always get this right
Its important to have a conducive setting for a wine tasting, the Europeans always get this right

The wine drinking culture in India is still relatively new- limited to opening nights in art galleries, high society social dos & corporate gatherings. It is very rare for an Indian to actually order a glass of wine off the beverage menu. There are a many reasons for this:
For starters, most restaurants charge you a bomb for a glass of wine, some even try to cover the entire cost of the bottle in a single glass- this is a clear indicator that there isn’t as much demand for wine.
Second, the complicated excise and liquor rules in our country require each wine label to be registered in each individual state of India, a result of this is that the market is mainly dominated by big players and companies- Diageo, Pernod Ricard( who have deep pockets to pay individual registration fees for each label which they wish to sell in each state) Smaller niche vineyards and companies simply cannot dream of coming to India due to the high set up cost- which is clearly off-putting.
Third, the infrastructure needed to support this industry is virtually nonexistent by the fact that there are no temperature controlled warehouses or delivery trucks. This is crucial for wine sale and transport. In a country like India where temperatures hover over 35 degrees, wine can easily turn to vinegar. I can’t count the many times I’ve been served wine which is well vinegary or in wine terms “oxidized” – returning it back to the Bar tender is unthinkable or taking the bottle back for a refund at your local liquor store is also out of the question.
Last but not the least, is what I’d like to call the “Colonial” hangover. Indians are hooked onto to Whiskey & Single Malts! Vodka is the most popular choice for the young and trendy. A real man will not be caught drinking wine( although I’m amazed at how many men have taken to drinking cheap red vinegary wine believing it to have health benefits, oh how wrong there are!) However, I am happy to report that this is changing slowly in cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, which now have dedicated wine clubs that host regular wine tastings, wine & food pairing events, wine book readings on a weekly basis

The purpose of this article is to introduce an average Indian to the world of wine, without sounding like a presumptuous wine diva. There are still so many things that I don’t know and need to know about wine. What I’m hoping to achieve here is to equip you with the knowledge to enjoy a  glass of wine, to distinguish a “good” and “bad” wine & finally understand that wine appreciation is easily within your grasp and not all of what we call “wine talk” is a load of fluffy crap( in the words of a dear friend)

Step into my shop- the quaint display outside a wine shop in Rudesheim, Germany
Step into my shop- the quaint display outside a wine shop in Rudesheim, Germany

Wine has the power to bring back long lost memories, to make you appreciate the tiny nuances of soil, fruit and nature, to bring out the best in your food and finally to evoke poetry! So let’s go beyond calling the noble grape a “white wine” or “red wine” and look at the main grape varietals and what’s available in India


Sauvignon Blanc ( pronounced: soo-veen-yon blon):

The famed vineyards of New Zealand: Marlborough
The famed vineyards of New Zealand: Marlborough

Three words come to my mind when describing a Sauv Blanc: fresh, grassy, crisp. Sauvignon Blanc’s are meant to be drunk early, within 3 years of bottling. Its spiritual home is in France’s Loire Valley in particular Sancerre and Pouilly-Sur-Loire (famous for the Pouilly Fume)
The first notes to reach the nose are: the smell of freshly cut grass, herby & vegetal. On taking the first sip, you will get hints of gooseberries, apples, pears and as a parting note a hint of acidity (which I describe as “crisp”) Sauvignon Blancs are not sweet and oily and are generally pale in color. They pair incredibly well with Seafood andSouth East Asian cuisine (with its notable sweet, sour,spicy notes) My favourite will always be pairing delicate scallops with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc

INDIAN PICKS: Try the Fratelli Sauvignon Blanc ( from their vineyard in Akluj, Mharashtra)- it comes pretty close to all the aromatic tasting notes I’ve mentioned above.. Chateau D’Ori Sauvignon Blanc is also another recommendation
FOREIGN PICKS: Easily available in all duty free shops is the Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough New Zealand. It has all the hallmarks of a stellar Sauvignon Blanc- freshly mowed grass, hints of gooseberries and a clean crispy finish.  Sauvignon Blanc from Vina Tarapaca, Chile   is available in Indian stores and I think makes for a better option when compared to the Indian wines

Cloudy Bay
Cloudy Bay wine from Marlborough, New Zealand

Riesling( pronounced: Rees-ling): my personal favorite,  by far the most important white wine grape varietal and ironically the most underrated too. Riesling can be best described as aromatic, delicate, stony.

Walking through the famous Riesling vineyards Dr Thanisch, Mosel
A sunny day, walking through the stunning Riesling vineyards of Dr Thanisch, Mosel

Riesling is one of the few wines that exercise a fine balance of aromas, fruit flavours and acidity ( what many winemakers call the balance of “sugar and acidity”)  Riesling’s home is in the banks of the gentle Mosel River in Germany where some of the world’ s finest Rieslings are made (  Drinkers are greeted by a whiff of petrol on the nose, the palate will reveal nectarine fruits which is almost immediately counter balanced with a sharp acidic stony finish.  Rieslings age beautifully and are also available in sweeter versions. I find that Rieslings pair beautifully with spicy Indian curries and South East Asian Cuisine

INDIAN PICKS: Try the Sula Riesling if you’re fond of your Rieslings being sweet and less acidic. Goes very well with our heavy curries, I would recommend serving it chilled
FOREIGN PICKS: Domaine Trimbach or Dr Loosen from Mosel/ Bernkastel ( Germany) are the top picks that best expresses the beauty of a Riesling. TIP-Please read the label carefully. German’s classify their Riesling as follows- “Trocken” or dry;  “Halbtrocken”  or semi dry; “Spatlese” made from late harvest grapes semi sweet to sweet; “Auslese” which is a select harvest of ripened grapes taste is sweet and perfect as a dessert wine.
Rieslings from Alsace region( in France) are also well known and slightly sweeter

Chardonnay( Pronounced Shard-donn-ay): The queen of all grapes and the most popular white wine varietals. Alas! Very few Indian winemakers make this grape, so very little to be found.
Chardonnay can be best described as fleshy, buttery, oaky, honey-ed, butterscotch-y. It is a versatile wine that pairs well with all cuisines.

The Chardonnay Grape
The Chardonnay Grape

DID U KNOW? That Champagne is made exclusively with 100% chardonnay grapes
Almost all the white wine from the famed Burgundy region is made from Chardonnay( including Chablis) A Chardonnay ages very well some as many as three decades!
INDIAN PICKS: Reveilo Chardonnay Reserve is a must try. Its fruity, luscious flavours are balanced with a whiff of French oak. It’s also perhaps the only Indian winery, I can think of  making Chardonnay here in India.
FOREIGN PICKS: Columbia Crest Chardonnay from Washington( USA) is  available in most Indian liquor stores, it has all the tick marks for a hallmark chardonnay.  For a couple of hundred rupees more(than the Indian whites), try the Cono Sur Chardonnay from Chile.  If you have deep pockets, look at getting a Chardonnay from the most legendary towns of Burgundy: Chassagne Montrachet & Puligny Montrachet. Try sticking with a classification of Appellation Village or Appellation Premier Cru/ 1er Cru. Do remember these wines are extremely tannic when young, so best to keep them in a cellar and open at least 5 years from bottling date!

Chassagne Montrachet- a fine choice
Chardonnay from Chassagne Montrachet, a great choice for those with deeper pockets

Other cheaper options( under Rs 3000) that make for everyday drinking include Chardonnay from Australia- Bird in Hand-  Adelaide Hills Stonier- Mornington Peninsular, Victoria

CHENIN BLANC: The most well known grape varietal in India, since almost all the Indian winemakers produce this. Chenin Blanc originated from France in the Loire Valley. Chenin Blanc’s are usually very easy to drink and fruity.

Chenin blanc grape

INDIAN PICKS: Sula Chenin Blanc or York Chenin Blanc are good value easy drinking picks. The Grover’s Art Collection Chenin Blanc is also worth trying, I found it to have more depth
FOREIGN PICKS: South Africa produces excellent Chenin Blanc’s, try Simonsig Chenin Blanc from the Stellenbosch region.

Viognier( Pronunciation: Vee-o-nier): Perfumed, full bodied, nectarine, peaches & apricot are the thoughts that come to my mind when I think of this grape. Do be warned that they are fairly acidic too. Viognier is slowly catching on in the wine making circles and shows tremendous potential
INDIAN PICKS: Grover’s Art Collection Viognier is my favourite, best expressing the perfumed notes, do remember to chill for at least 12 hours prior to serving!
FOREIGN PICKS: Those with deep pockets must at some point try the famous Viognier from Condrieu( Northern Rhone, France) bottles can cost anywhere upwards of $ 100( USD) but is guaranteed to create lasting memories- pure heaven!

Viognier from Condrieu, Northern Rhone( House of Paul Jaboulet)
Memorable wine tasting at one of the many "Weinguts" in Cochem, Germany
Memorable wine tasting at one of the many
“Weinguts” in Cochem, Germany

There are so many other wine varietals that deserve special mention and that I can’t possibly go into detailing for lack of time, but here they are: Pinot Grigio( a relatively light and easy wine that was drunk to death in America in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s), Aligote( grown entirely in Burgundy it is used in making the aperitif Kir), Sylvaner( a beautiful semi sweet wine found in the mountains Alsace) , Gewurztraminer( my favourite, a heavily scented sweet wine from Germany resonating with notes of litchi and roses), Semillon( used in making the famous dessert wine from Sauternes, France) Muscat( a lovely sweet fortified dessert wine originating from France) , Pedro Ximenz( famed for Sherry originating from Spain), Prosecco( a zesty sparkling wine originating from Spain)

Here’s my guide on how to serve and store your white wine:

1)     Always store your white wine in the refrigerator with temperature ranging from 8-10 degrees

2)     Invest in an ice bucket which you can fill with ice & cold water.  Just as you have poured your guests the first glass, leave the bottle in the ice bucket to stay chilled. When pulling out of the bucket, remember to wipe off the water droplets with a clean cloth napkin

wine bucket

3)     Get a corkscrew: Although most white wine bottles in India have a screw tap, some may have a cork and are required to be opened to with a corkscrew, this is easily available in nearly all supermarkets

wine corkscrew

4)     White wine goes very well with Indian starters, salads and soups. I usually serve it as an aperitif or with my first course( soup/starter/salad) followed by a decent medium bodied red wine for mains

5)     Fruity  white wines- Rieslings, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc

6)     Slightly dry white wines- Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Rieslings( “trocken” and “halbtrocken”)

7)     Perfumed/ Floral white wines- Viognier, Gewurztraminer

8)     Excellent Dessert wines- Semillon, Pedro Ximenez, Sylvaner, Muscat


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