India shows potential as a developing wine nation, and only the very best shall be served to encourage this. Hence, wine expert Steven Spurrier spills some fine nuggets of wines from across the world while Lyle Michael takes notes

Wine a bit, and the night shall be remembered for a long time to come. And it was, with seven wines laid out at the dinner table to showcase the newest range brought in by the Laithwaite’s Wine Society of India (WSI) for the budding Indian consumer. With the wine consumption here growing at a slow – 10-15% – yet stable enough rate, it would only be right to get the ball moving quicker with reds and whites that deliver.

So you have international and Indian wines – with several offers for WSI members – to expose the Indian wine drinker to the glorious world of the vine’s wonder. Laid out in tempting array you have Lime Leaf Verdejo 2012, a refreshing citrusy Spanish white to go best with your grilled fish or salad; a musky Prosecco NV by Tenuta Ca Bolani, then there’s the pleasant Rioja 2010 from the outstanding Baron de Barbon, it’s contemporary fruity nature perfect for lamb chops. Albarrada 2011 is next on the list, coming all the way from a little cellar in Portugal where the red wine’s a rage, best to compliment a game dinner. The award-winning Black Stump 2012 by the Australian Casella is a wine of the rare Durif Shiraz grape variety, rich and ripe to accompany a flavourful char-grilled steak. And the sole Indian offerings, Fratelli’s award-winning Chardonnay that does justice to its current varietal 2012 with its buttery end notes and roundness;  as well as a Fratelli reserve, the Super Tuscan Sette 2010 that’s credited to their Tuscan vintner, Piero Masi – a wine so smooth and elegant. And it did turn out a night to remember at ITC Grand Central, Mumbai where the wine flowed, the sumptuous cuisine sated and the wine lover was spoilt for choice, all in the privileged, affable company of Chairman of the Board of Wine Advisors of WSI, Consultant Editor for Decanter and founder of the Decanter World Wine Awards. Or simply put, ‘one of the world’s greatest living wine experts’, Steven Spurrier.

“10 years ago,” recounts Steven in his soft tone with the marked enunciation of an Englishman who knows his wine, “India began with two leading vineyards, Chateau Indage (Shamrao Chougule) and Grover (Kanwal Grover). Today, you have 15 and growing. As the import tax on wines is 110%, local wineries would  benefit. Overall, the Indian drinker needs to be more exposed to the culture of wine.” Herein lies a promotion – in association with Fratelli Wines and ITC Hotels – of the newest range of wines brought in by the WSI where international wine taster, Steven himself serves as head of the selection committee, tasting 20-25 wines and placing the best on the list. The wines chosen from UK’s privately owned merchant, Direct Wines are all from known regions which incorporate the New and Old Worlds suitably. Having drawn from each other in the past 40 years, the wines have got a lot fresher. 20 years ago, say, an Argentinian Malbec was made in the cellar and today, South America appears the most interesting in the New World wine-producing countries, India and China included.

With the wines introduced by WSI being priced between Rs 695 – 2500, Steven wishes to create a range that is suitable to many a budget, while going on to highlight the emergence of quality produce at affordable prices today. “A bottle in my cellar is about £30 and I could well enjoy a good red or white in the £6-10 range!” he exclaims. This coming from the versed man who made his entry into the world of wine in 1964 when he began as a trainee with London’s oldest wine merchant Christopher & Co, to today, having tasted the finest of wines the world over; and with 25 acres of his 200-acre farm in West Dorset converted into vineyards producing sparkling wines. “My wife, Bella and I started Bride Valley – a 4000-bottle cellar – in 2009 and the wines are produced in France. Rose Bella, named after my dear wiife is the Rosé we will be launching, however not for sale before 2015 as the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were only recently picked and harvested,” he kindly informs us. “Wine drinking is not, for me, about the rules and sophistication ceremoniously attached to it. It is about enjoying your glass and pairing it with your mood rather than your food.” A neat mantra to follow, we agree. Though he will not break the rules. It’s a white with fish and a red with steak. Still, as he believes whites to be more an aperitif, it’s mostly reds with the main course. Interesting; as is the fact that wine after all is an agricultural product, so why follow a formula. Then take us through the Indian scenario, we say, where wine is quite the alien concept at the dinner table, more so, with a hearty Indian meal laid out. Having travelled more than once to India before, Steven has a fairly good idea which he puts forth as such: “There is no single wine that could possibly be the perfect one for the variety that Indian food has to offer. Robust wines such as New World ones would accompany a butter chicken or Murgh Jalandhari well. And one thing’s for sure, Indian cuisine in India is done with much more finesse than in London.” There’s no place like home! So get out a bottle of wine on the Indian table and the pleasure of the drink will flow.

With over 40 years in the industry, the wine expert has travelled far and wide – Spain, France, Portugal – learning about wines in several estates which led to the establishment of France’s first private wine school, L’Acadmie du Vin in 1973. This emerged central to the education of wine enthusiasts which is of prime importance, opines Steven. So too in our country where the ‘edutainment’ of wine is essential. Take for instance, wine and the UK, a subject that continues to fascinate and circles around the assumption that it’s largely a gin-n-tonic nation. Au contraire, as Steven shares, “Vines were initially planted in English vineyards that belonged to monasteries. These were German grapes planted 900 years ago that led to the production of dry white wines, one such, being the finest English sparkling Nyetimber (by Dutchman, Eric Heerema) that has earned accolades so far. Then there’s Ridgeview’s Merret in honour of Englishman Christopher Merret who, in 1662, presented a paper to the Royal Society in London documenting the process of making traditional sparkling wines, 30 years before the technique was documented in champagne.

Sitting with the socially adept septuagenarian, who famously organised the Judgement of Paris (blind) tasting in 1976 where Californian wines were lauded over the prestige of Burgundy and Bordeaux, offers an unfound meaning to wine – to savour it not just for its character, but for its history and the artistry that makes it so. ‘Tis quite right to call him a wine evangelist, the man who persuaded an elderly lady to sell him her tony wine store in Rue Royale, Paris in 1970 and later founded the Christie’s Wine Course. Who hails from an economics and banking background, and went on to serve as wine consultant for Singapore Airlines. Who quaffs a bottle and a quarter every day at home in London and savours his weekends in Dorset with a good Côtes du Rhône while the wife cooks up a warm meal, perhaps. “The kids have kids now, so between my boy and my girl, I have four grandchildren and my very own mongrel, a Lab-Collie-Springer mix called Max(imus).”

When Steven made his first trip to our nation a few years back, it was Sula’s founder, Rajeev Samant who stated, “The light for wine in India is on green.” And it is India’s quality vineyards and the WSI backing this claim today, ensuring that a bottle of the best reaches the dinner table. For it is in fine wine that lies the start of something new, something memorable.

This interview was published in UpperCrust Magazine, Apr-Jun 2014, used here with permission from the publisher
Photo courtesy: UpperCrust Magazine