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Wine and song

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Pop, jazz and even Bollywood tunes… heady pairing from a wine expert.

Giuseppe A. Pariani, Export Director for Marchesi de Frescobaldi wines
Giuseppe A. Pariani, Export Director for Marchesi de Frescobaldi wines

People start with a wine that is sweet, white, not very alcoholic and with low tannins. Then the taste evolves…

Rasheeda Bhagat

Imagine a winemaking tradition dating back seven centuries and 30 generations; a family whose wines made it to the Renaissance and papal courts, not to mention the court of that colourful English monarch Henry VIII! The combined size of its wine estates would make up the area of entire Singapore, and this Tuscan winemaker produces 10 million bottles of high quality wine a year!

The Marchesi de Frescobaldi family from Tuscany in Italy is now gearing up to serve the ever-increasing appetite of the Indian wine market. But it doesn’t think the number 10 million has any sanctity; “we work in a small niche, and our wines are closer to luxury products, and 90 per cent of our wines are red; that is the personality of the region,” says Giuseppe A. Pariani, Export Director of the Frescobaldi wines.

On a whirlwind tour of India, West Asia, Malaysia, Thailand, China, he hosted wine dinners, wine-tasting sessions and introduced “discerning connoisseurs to the grapes of joy”.

In Chennai, he participated in wine lunch and dinner sessions organised at Taj Coromandel’s speciality Italian restaurant Prego. At the simple but delicious lunch created by Chef Giovanna, accompanying the cream of broccoli soup with bocconcini (a semi-soft, mild cheese) and red peppers (one preferred this to ‘cubes of beef, leeks and lollo salad’) was a Dan Zante Pinot Grigio white wine. The verdict — light, slightly sweet, a fruity aroma and delicious. Its description says: ‘A light straw-yellow that fairly shimmers and opens to appealing notes of crisp apple and pear that segue into a lovely, delicate florality. The aromatic fruitiness continues onto a generous, full-bodied palate that is wonderfully fresh and lively.”

But to find out the expert’s verdict, we have to go back to what he said about wine for beginners.

Sweet and white for beginners

Giving an interesting take on the evolution in taste when it comes to wines, Pariani said: “Normally people start with a wine that is sweet, white, not very alcoholic and with low tannins. Then the taste evolves… they find this a little boring and move on to more complex wines. It’s just like music; before becoming passionate on opera or classical music, you begin with pop music.

So what would he compare the first wine with?

“A little bit like Bollywood music, which I heard on the flight I took this morning… It had easy beats!”

Along with the lamb stew, served in a mushroom sauce, with mashed potato and asparagus, and a rich variety of delectable breads, the like of which would be impossible to buy from bakeries in India and which make you pine for Europe, we had a quick round of two wines; first, another equally delicious white — the Frescobaldi 2006 Pomino Bianco; “something like jazz music”, said Pariani. Made from Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco (Italian for Blanc) grapes, it had an intense aroma of tropical fruits and the taste lingered on the palate for quite a while.

The red that followed was the Castiglioni Chianti 2005, produced from the oldest estate of the family. An “intense ruby red, it has the aroma of strawberries and cherries mingling with a spicy accent of fresh pepper”. This was a good example of a wine that can be matched very well with spicy Indian food.

Aman Dhall, Executive Director of Brindco Ltd, the exclusive distributor of Frescobaldi wines in India, said that in retail, and after paying the stiff import duties, a bottle of this wine would cost Rs 1,800 in Mumbai, Rs 1,400 in Delhi and Rs 1,200 in Bangalore. Needless to say, one cannot buy good wines in retail in Chennai, except for the domestic duty-free shops at the airport, thanks to the strange liquor policy of successive Tamil Nadu governments.

High cost of imported wine

Brindco is the largest importer of wines in India, bringing in wines from 11 countries. “We have over 600 labels from California and Washington, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, Italy and Hungary,” said Dhall. He ascribed the high cost of wines in India to steep import duty (160 per cent) and stiff State taxes. “So 85 per cent of the price you pay for a bottle in retail in India goes towards these taxes.” While Maharashtra has the stiffest State tax — 200 per cent — on imported wine, obviously to protect the domestic wine industry, “Karnataka is one of the most wine-friendly regions in India”, he added.

For him it’s an exciting time to be in the wine import business, as the “Indian urban elite is shifting to wine”. He finds Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore to be “far-advanced wine markets of India, as people from these cities do a lot of international travel. A lot of people also want to move away from hard liquor to wine because if you consume good wine, you don’t get a hangover the next day.”

India vs China

Pariani is extremely bullish on the Indian wine market and thinks there is much more potential in India compared to China. For one thing, “wine is more integrated into the culture of India and we go back to the time of the Moghuls who drank wine. Also, in India there is an important and growing middle-class with disposable income.”

Another limitation in China for wine marketers like him is the local custom where “people first eat and then go out drinking”, something that is not amenable to wine, which normally accompanies food.

But even though Pariani, as well as international wine producers like him, see India as one of the fastest-growing markets in the world, one made the mistake of asking Dhall about the per capita consumption of wine in India and got this depressing reply. “Oh, it is less than a teaspoon, about 0.4 ml per person!”

But he could not dampen the enthusiasm of Pariani, who had first visited India in “the 1980s when the Indian market was closed and Black and White (whiskey) was seen everywhere.”

The lunch was wrapped up with a Mondavi Frescobaldi 2004 Lucente, a medium-bodied red “with aromas of flowers, berry and light perfume.” But more interesting than this description is Pariani’s pairing it with music. “I would say Lucente equals Celine Dion — warm, sweet and involving!”

Chilling fact!

Get the temperature right: Have you ever suffered the embarrassment of trying to go by the rule book and serving red wine at "room temperature" to your guests on a summer day, only to find it tastes more like medicine than fine wine? And that too after paying a bomb for it if you’ve bought it in India, dishing out all those stiff duties and local taxes. Well, take the advice of the expert from Frescobaldi winemaker, the affable Giuseppe A. Pariani. He shakes his head gently and says, "Many people make mistakes when it comes to serving wines at the right temperature. People think all white wines have to be served chilled. But never chill an expensive white wine or else you’ll ruin it." In tropical countries like India, he suggests, red wine should be served at around 18 degrees Centigrade, and for that obviously you’ll have to refrigerate it. Rule of thumb for light white wines - refrigerate them, but not all of them have to be served chilled. A safe temperature would be one that doesn’t exceed 20 degrees Centigrade.

Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated May 23, 2008)
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