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The (uncensored) tasting notes

The (uncensored) tasting notes
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First Published: Fri, Aug 22 2008. 02 50 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Aug 22 2008. 10 46 AM IST
A few years ago, it seemed every banker you met wanted to pack in the 9-to-5 and live the good life as a winemaker. Prime property was bought all over Nashik and the grape growing began. The fruits of that labour have finally been picked, bottled and are now ready to be served. But how do the products measure up? We asked two sommeliers and a professional wine taster—“We spit, so you don’t have to”—to taste four recently launched brands: Zinzi, Nilaya, Big Banyan and Tiger Hill.
Do you like Indian wine? Share your opinion with us.
We bought the bottles directly from the companies, took over a private room at the Q’ba restaurant in Delhi and sampled one red and one white from each brand. Here’s an edited transcript of what the professionals had to say:
Launched by Vijay Mallaya’s United Breweries label, this wine targets the wine newbie. Its flashy label boasts “French varietal” and an extra tag around the bottle’s neck offers recipes for wine-based drinks. The tag reads: “They come from hand-picked French grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Shiraz.” The wine is available in Karnataka, Goa, West Bengal and Maharashtra and sells for Rs270 (all prices before duties and taxes).
Our experts say:
Stephane Soret (SS): This is a pretty cheap marketing ploy. People see it’s a French wine, so it adds a bit of quality to it. But “French varietal” means nothing.
Magandeep Singh (MS): This is French wine because the original cuttings were French, but this might be the seventh or 70th grafting of the wine. It’s Indian wine. The label is a gimmick. And Zinfandel is not French at all. It’s Italian, maybe, but not French. This is absolutely wrong information on the label.
Zinzi White
The company says:
A mixture of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, it is easy to drink—fresh, fruity, light and sweetish.
Our experts say:
MS: The colours are fine; it looks like any wine (tastes wine, starts coughing). Wow. You see, I judge a wine a lot by its finish, just pure finish; nothing else to me is more important than a smooth finish that isn’t too jarring, too metallic or too steely. And this wine is all three.
SS: For me, there is no concept, no identity. It’s very imbalanced, very green. Overall, the acidity is overpowering.
Gurjit Singh Barry (GB): It starts out medium sweet, but by the time it reaches your mid-palate, it’s dead, finished; you don’t even realize you had anything. It has a nose, but that’s it.
Zinzi Red
The company says: The red is a blend of Zinfandel, Shiraz and Cabernet. The aroma is freshly crushed red fruit with spicy notes. It is easy to drink, light to medium-bodied, with soft tannins.
Our experts say:
SS: It’s cooked. From a tasting point of view, it has that sweet red pepper, but not in a good way. It has very earthy roots.
MS: It is heated grape juice.
SS: Okay, next.
Launched by Diageo, the company that owns Johnny Walker and California wine Beaulieu Vineyard, Nilaya targets first-time wine drinkers and markets itself as the first Indian wine from Diageo, with a proud Hindi “n” on its label. The wine is available for Rs350 in Maharashtra, Delhi, Chandigarh, Karnataka and Goa.
Our experts say:
MS: I like the label. It does something for me. I like the incorporating of the Hindi “n”. I would love to give the rest of the world a tough time pronouncing Indian wine names after all the trouble we’ve had to go to in learning French names. If I had a wine, I would name it in Sanskrit. Indians see this label and recognize it as something of their own.
Sauvignon Blanc
The company says:
A smooth subtle balance to citrus flavours.
Our experts say:
SS: It smells like sugar cane juice. This would not appeal to the Indian consumer. There is nothing pleasing about this wine.
MS: It’s actually salty. I don’t think it’s intended.
GB: There might be a problem with this particular bottle.
SS: I’ve never tasted this, but I would say that this is not the way it is intended.
MS: This is what a guy has for his first taste, for an introduction, and then he says, “I’m not cut out for wines.” But this is not wine!
Shiraz Cabernet
The company says:
With blackberry and cherry flavours with smoky aromas.
Our experts say:
MS: There is a lot of Brett. Brett is like a fungus. It’s not a good thing. It creeps into your winemaking equipment.
SS: This tastes very similar to the Zinzi Red.
GB: This one isn’t as bad.
Big Banyan
A slightly schizophrenic wine company, location-wise, Chateau de Banyan is based in Bangalore, grows its grapes in Nashik and bottles its wine in Goa. The look is clean and simple, mirroring foreign trends in the label, though the name asserts its Indian identity. The wine costs Rs475 and is available in Goa, Karnataka and Kerala.
Our experts say:
MS: This is the best label by far. It looks classy. And you can imagine that they have a big Banyan tree in their vineyard. Chateau de Banyan—it sounds right. Plus, it has a big 2006 right on the label. On most Indian wines, the vintages are the tiniest thing on the label. This wine also has good foil and they’ve used this synthetic cork, which is a good choice for a wine that is not meant for ageing. It’s meant to be drunk right away.
Sauvignon Blanc
The company says:
Very fresh aromas of citrus and lime, dry, slightly sour with a smooth finish.
Our experts say:
SS: This is very primary, as far as aromatics go. There are hints of citrus and grapefruit. It’s flattering and easy. Among what we’ve tried so far, it’s the best nose.
MS: The finish is not too greasy and not too flat.
SS: It gets stuck in the mid-palate.
MS: Sauvignon Blanc is known as an aperitif. It’s supposed to be a fresh wine, easy to drink. But this is heavy on the tongue. It weighs your tongue down, so you can’t have this as an aperitif.
SS:It’s falling short of expectations. On the first approach, it’s interesting, you feel like “wow, I have something”, but then when you taste it on the palate, it’s like, “not so much”. But it’s much better than Nilaya or Zinzi.
MS: Grover makes a Sauvignon Blanc that’s better and Sula has one that’s more popular.
Cabernet Sauvignon
The company says:
Dry, full-bodied, with good structure and velvety tannins.
Our experts say:
MS: This smells like grape juice, like it’s not fermented completely. They’ve left sugar in it. It’s very grape-y wine. It is all over the place. The white wine is a much better option in this brand.
Tiger Hill
Launched by Champagne Indage Ltd., this Nashik-based vineyard considers itself a boutique brand, offering eight different varietals, with a model similar to Australian wines: a witty look with tiger scratches cut out of the label; a name inspired by an animal; and a bottle shaped after the top-selling Mondavi bottle, with a no-drip lip. The wine can be purchased in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Goa and Karnataka for Rs550.
Our experts say:
MS: I’m not sure if this wine is an actual Indian wine. It just sounds a bit dicey. It says Nashik Valley, but that’s the address, not necessarily where the grapes were grown.*
*Editor’s note: Tiger Hill’s press department says the wine is most definitely grown and bottled in India.
Chardonnay Semillion
The company says:
An aromatic nose of peach and citrus compliments the palate, which is lean and fresh.
Our experts say:
SS: Best nose so far. It’s interesting. I would never think it’s an Indian wine. How much is it?
MS:You have converted me. I believe you can do it. This can compete with foreign wine. If it comes in that bottle, and it’s that price, it’s spot on. I would prefer this to any Indian wine any day.
SS: It reminds me of Australian chardonnays. By far, it is the best wine.
The company says:
Deep red with a purple tinge, this Shiraz is medium-bodied, with some subtle spiced berry fruit.
Our experts say:
MS: It’s a bit kinky. This is not Indian stuff. I’ll put it this way: best—quote, unquote—Indian wine.
SS:As far as the wine, Tiger Hill is definitely the one we like.
MS: Would you put this on your wine list?
SS: If we were convinced this is Indian wine, yes.
The experts
Magandeep Singh
After completing his hotel management from Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition, Mumbai, Singh pursued his master’s in hospitality management at Institut Vatel, Nîmes, France. He got a postgraduate diploma in wine tasting (Sommelier-Conseil) at L’Université du Vin, Suze-la-Rousse, France. He has now founded a wine consultancy called Wi-Not?, and is a writer and the host of NDTV Good Times’ food and wine show ‘Around the World in 85 Plates’.
Stephane Soret
Soret grew up in Provence’s southern Rhône wine country near Avignon, France. He earned his sommelier degree from the Ecole Hôteliere de Nîmes, and soon after graduated with distinction from Centre de Management Hotelier International-Paris. Soret has worked in some of the top restaurants in London, Paris, New York, Dubai and San Francisco, as well as being the wine director for the official catering company to Prince Charles of England. He now works as the head sommelier for The Imperial, New Delhi.
Gurjit Singh Barry
Born in Delhi, Barry got his hotel management degree in 2001 from the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa, Delhi. He then received his advanced certification at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust in London. Barry leads wine consultations and training programmes for hotel companies across India for Magandeep Singh’s company, Wi-Not?.
(None of the experts is on the payroll of any Indian or international wine company.)
Wine list
Use these tips from our panel before you turn winemaker
Get three wine experts in a tasting room and you will get more than just tips on which wine should make it to your cellar and what is best left on the racks. Our expert trio told us what Indian winemakers should “really” be doing if they are serious about making a great Indian wine. Before the trio let loose, though, they wanted winemakers and enthusiasts to know that the idea behind these suggestions is not to run down the industry, which Magandeep Singh says is still taking baby steps, but to help it grow in the right direction. Stephane Soret quoted French philosopher Jean Baudelaire: “Without criticizing, there is no true compliment.”
Think out of Nashik
Most Indian winemakers gravitate to Nashik, a region where table grapes have traditionally been grown. But there is a huge difference between table grapes and wine grapes. If a Sumo wrestler can’t be trained the same way as an athlete, Singh says, then how can wine grapes be cultivated in the same way that table grapes are? “I would love to see some wine production in the North-East. It has a much better climate and winemakers may get better results,” says Soret.
Where is the Indian stamp?
Another grouse is that Indian winemakers want to copy what happens in France or other parts of the world. “The key should be that instead of using all that money to make wine that is not Indian, use it to find out how they can make a wine that is Indian, that has its own identity. Why replicate tastes that are already out there? Concentrate on what is Indian,” suggests Soret. Singh complains that the few innovative Indian wines have not changed in 25 years: Indage still makes its one Chantilly. Grover only makes one thing that is good, but it’s not consistent. Sula still hides behind sugar with every wine. All three experts believe that Indian winemakers need to experiment. “It’s (all about) trial and error, and the industry is still young,” says Soret.
The fine print
Packaging is especially important for retail because when a consumer goes to a store and has to choose from more than 100 bottles, he will go with one that catches his attention. “I often buy wines because of the label. You have two wines, the same price, you have no idea about the brands, and you can’t take someone else’s word for it. You go, well, somehow I feel that a guy (who) would make such a label, I (would) agree with his philosophy for making wines,” says Singh.
Winemakers here also need to keep in mind their audience. If it is in India, a “gaudy label” may not work. “For foreigners, having a peacock on an Indian label might work, since they associate peacocks with India,” says Singh. Also, while it’s good to have tasting suggestions on the label, Indian labels tend to offer no specifics. “Bohemia wine’s tag line is, ‘Goes well with any cheese’,” says Barry. It’s a play on the Hindi “cheez” (thing), but it doesn’t offer any advice on pairing the wine with food.
Finally, all international labels list a wine’s vintage year. But labels on Indian wines do not, using a small stamp that marks the manufacturing date. “Why?” asks Singh. “Because they (vineyards) would have to chuck the labels the next year. And ‘date of manufacture’ is the most unromantic thing you can say about the wine.”
The debate continues
Don’t judge a bottle by its screw top. Most wine connoisseurs have accepted that screw tops can be just as good as cork, as long as you are not planning to keep the wine in storage for a very long time. To show off your screw top, try to open the bottle in this elaborate fashion:
Step 1: Hold the metal down at the base of the covering, below the seam, and turn the bottle to break the seal.
Step 2: Grab hold of the bottle from its base and touch the screw cap to your upper arm.
Step 3: Draw the bottle down your arm in one smooth motion, pressing the cap to your arm, so it spins loose.
Step 4: Grab the loose top when the bottle reaches your hand. Pour the wine. Act humble when your friends start applauding.
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First Published: Fri, Aug 22 2008. 02 50 AM IST
More Topics: Video story | Wine | Winemaker | Zinzi | Nilaya |