We all start somewhere with our wine drinking…there is always a first glass of wine. In Indian culture and in the great Indian middle-class, wine drinking is simply not common. In fact, it’s downright rare – the oft quoted statistic is that we Indians consume on average the equivalent of just one tablespoon (or 6-8ml) of wine per person each year. This is quite the opposite of our appetite for hard liquor: the Economic times has reported today that no less than six Indian whisky brands are in the Top-10 selling whisky brands worldwide! Across all spirits segments (rum, whisky, vodka etc), three Indian brands are among the top-10 worldwide. Click here to read that article.
The impediments to drinking wine in India are plenty and well-chronicled: the high price of wine, lack of availability, and spoilage due to poor logistics…the list is endless. Add to this, many Indians are simply not sure of how to drink wine. We definitely know how to drink whisky, so what’s the big deal about drinking wine? The answer is that there should not be one! Just pop open a bottle and enjoy it.
However, wine is different from whisky and to many people wine conjures up the image of a snob sniffing at his glass. In fact, the image of a professional wine drinker is almost a cliché. He swirls the wine, sniffs at it and talks about it pretentiously. Peachy nose with a hint of apple he says! Or ripe red fruit aromas with notes of cinnamon! He then suggests that the wine has a medium body and a long finish. What is he talking about, and why? Is this relevant to you? If you’re like most wine drinkers in India you just want to answer basic questions: what kind of wine do I like? Is the wine I’m drinking a good one? How do I decide which wine to buy? And how best to drink the damn thing when I finally have a bottle in my hand?
You can enjoy the wine you’re drinking without even thinking about it. Enjoying wine should not involve the pressure to talk about it. It is possible, however, to magnify your enjoyment and make wine exploration a hobby if you spend just a little time thinking about what you’re drinking. Follow the steps below, and you’ll be on your way.
First, the basics:
- The wine should be served in a wine glass – any standard clear wine glass with a stem and bowl will do.
- The wine should also be served at the right temperature. It’s a misperception that red wine should be served at room temperature. That may be the case in Europe, but not in India – especially during the summer. The correct service temperature is 16°-18°C for most red wines (the bottle should feel cool, but not cold), and anywhere from 7°-12°C for most white wines (the bottle should feel chilled).
- Wine tastes better with food, especially when paired correctly. So try to pair your wine with food. But that’s not the most important thing when you’re just starting out.
Now, about taking your wine enjoyment to the next level…….before you sip, try the following:
First, tilt the glass and look at the colour of the wine. You don’t need to reach any conclusions: just become aware of the colour so you can start noting differences between wines. How deep is the colour, or how pale? Does it look young – like a bright ruby colour in red wine, or a very pale lemon colour in white? Or does it suggest some age? Red wines tend to get paler with age, and distinct browning around the edges would be one indicator of age. White wines tend to get darker with age.
Next, take a quick whiff of the wine to make sure that it is ‘clean’. If the wine smells bad, don’t drink it. Think of the smell of wet cardboard or vinegar. If wine smells of these or any other unsavoury aromas – it is likely to be defective as a result of poor storage or tainted cork. Wine spoilage due to poor storage and transport is very common in India so beware (see my blog article with ‘Tips for enjoying wine at restaurants in India’, where I’ve described common wine faults). When a waiter in a restaurant offers a taste of the wine that you’ve ordered, it is these faults that you’re looking for. Send the wine back if it is spoilt, not if you don’t like the taste!
Now that you’ve confirmed that the wine is clean, get in there and sniff it. Your nose should be inside the glass, and not hovering over it. The glass should be filled to less than half its capacity. You’re going to swirl to release aromas, and for that you need space in the glass. Experts say that the majority of taste is smell. So you need to smell to get most of the flavour. Swirl the glass by holding it by the stem. This will agitate the liquid and release the aromas. Think about what these aromas suggest to you. What do they remind you of? Don’t feel any pressure to ‘get it right’: you’re doing this only for your own enjoyment! If you’re drinking a red wine, does it remind you of red fruit (strawberries, cherries)? Or black fruit (blackberries, black plums)? If you’re drinking a white wine, do you smell apple and lemon citrus flavours? Or are you reminded of apricots, peaches or mangoes? Do you smell any non-fruit aromas: any wood shavings, spices, chalk, earth, or wet hay? If you can simply start looking for, identifying, and making a mental note of these aromas, you’re well on your way to genuine wine appreciation.Why should you expect these aromas when the wine is only made from grapes? The reason is that reasonable quality wine can be expressive in terms of aromas. This expressiveness is the result of many factors, the most important being the grape variety. Wine is the result of the fermentation of grape juice and it has a number of compounds that give out aromas as a result of chemical reactions during the fermentation and aging process. These aromas, sometimes called the ‘bouquet’ of the wine, can be reminiscent of different kinds of fruits. Certain grape varieties are said to have particular telltale aromas: blackcurrant for Cabernet Sauvignon, Strawberry or raspberry for Pinot Noir. The experts sniffing at the wines are often looking for these telltale markers, among other things. You don’t need to recognize and name these aromas as you’re not going to participate in a blind tasting competition. Just enjoy them, so you don’t end up drinking wine like it is a neutral spirit!
Finally, take that sip you’ve been itching to take. And make it a generous one! When you take it the wine into your mouth, don’t drink it immediately. Let it linger in the mouth.
- First, feel for the body or ‘weight’ of the wine. The useful metaphor or cliché here is about milk. Full-bodied wine feels like full-cream milk, medium bodied like semi-skimmed milk and light bodied wine like skimmed milk. Full bodied wines will also be higher in alcohol content than medium and lighter bodied wines. The importance of body though is not just about alcohol levels – it is also about mouth-feel or texture.
- Next feel for the flavours. Do these flavours confirm what you felt ‘on the nose’? Do you detect any new flavours? Do you get any mineral flavours in your mouth? Imagine a lick of chalk when you were in class or getting some mud in your mouth as a kid – those are examples of minerality in wine.
- Finish that sip. Now think about the feeling in your mouth. Does the wine make your mouth water? Acidity in wine will make your mouth water – just like a lick of lime. If it is a red wine, does it make your gums dry out? Tannins in wine can do that. You will get a similar feeling if you squeeze out all the juice from a grape and try to eat only the skin – think of the grainy, puckering feeling that will give you in your gums. That’s tannin.
- Finally, think about the lingering aftertaste. How long does the aftertaste last? This is called the finish of the wine. Good wines will have a longer finish. Basic wines may taste good, but that taste will not linger after the sip has been taken.
The acidity, tannin, fruit concentration and alcohol together can loosely be described as the ‘structure’ of a wine. A wine in which these elements are in balance is described as ‘balanced’. All factors are important and contribute to the quality of the wine. If one element overwhelms the other – the wine may not be very pleasant to drink.
Make a mental note of the wine that you’ve just drunk. Is it a Merlot from California, or a Shiraz from Australia? You will slowly build a repertoire of different kinds of wine and what these might taste like. Think about what you liked about the wine, and what you did not. This will help you make your selection in the future. A word of caution: the wine you’re drinking may not be very expressive and may not tell you much about itself. The reason could simply be that it is not a very high quality wine and does not exhibit much personality or varietal character. Don’t be disappointed. Experiencing the mundane is what will help you to appreciate the truly special!
You will have your own reasons for your wine hobby. In the hit movie ‘Sideways’, Maya is asked about why she is into wine. Here’s her illuminative response: “I like to think about the life of wine – how it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing – how the sun was shining, and if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it’s an old wine – how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve – like if I open a bottle of wine today it will taste different than if I opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is until it peaks. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline”.