So you’re going out for dinner with friends and planning to order a bottle of wine. Great! Wine with food is the most civilized way to enjoy both wine and food. Fortunately, it is becoming more common for restaurants in Delhi and in other metros to have a serviceable wine list. The serving of wine correctly – without faults and at the right temperature – is less common. This makes enjoying wine at restaurants in India harder than it should be. In the ideal world, the bottle brought to your table would have been transported and stored properly, and served with care by the restaurant staff. However, in wine terms we do not live in the ideal world – especially in India! Even if you’re going to a top-class restaurant or a five-star hotel, do not automatically assume that you will get a fault-free bottle of wine, served at the right temperature.
For starters, wine is not indestructible as most spirits are. The way to think about wine is to consider it somewhat like a perishable food product. The way a wine has been stored is paramount in determining how it will taste. Unfortunately, wine faults are all too common in India – even at top-class hotels and restaurants. Some five-star hotels even knowingly serve faulty wine – they would rather serve it at a wedding banquet than to consider it dead stock. It is then up to you –the consumer – to sniff out wine faults! There are numerous wine faults and if you’re bored on Sunday, you can spend your day off reading about them here.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll try to stick to the most basic things to look out for when ordering wine in a restaurant in India. These tips will help you enjoy your wine, and to avoid faulty wine.
- Watch out for outdated vintages: wine sold in India is sometimes of too old a vintage. Remember, not all wine improves with age in the bottle. In fact, most wine is meant to be drunk young. Especially if you’re ordering relatively inexpensive wine, or you do not intentionally intend to order an old vintage – you should make sure that the wine you’re drinking is a relatively recent vintage. This way you will get a fresher wine, with less of a chance that it has been sitting in an importer’s warehouse for the last several years. This means that at the time of writing this article, your white wine should generally not be older than the 2008 vintage and your red wine not older than 2006 or 2007. Of course, some wines are aged longer in barrel and in bottle (Barolo’s, Brunello’s and pricier Bordeaux’s come to mind), in which case older vintages may be appropriate.
- Check the temperature the wine is served at: all too often both red and white wines are served too warm in India. Serving a red wine at room temperature may have been fine in a Chateaux in France in the last century (global warming means even the Chateaux in France will be too warm now!), but it is certainly not appropriate in India. Red wine should be served at 16°C-18°C. If red wine does not feel ‘cool’ to the touch, ask the waiter to put it in an ice bucket for 10-15 minutes. White wine should be served chilled at 8°C-12°C.
- Make sure the wine has not turned to vinegar! If ordering by the glass, ask the waiter when the bottle was opened. If it’s been opened on any day before your arrival – ask if it was vaccum-pumped and sealed or if they’re using an enomatic machine. If the answer is no to either, don’t order the wine. Wine that has been open too long is prone to ‘oxidation’ – which is caused by exposure to oxygen. Oxidation causes loss of colour, flavour and aroma. An oxidized wine can taste flat, sour or ‘vinegary’.Keep in mind though that oxidation can happen even in unopened bottles, if the closure has been faulty or the cork dried out over time (due to the bottle not being stored on its side). So if the wine tastes vinegary, flat or the colour seems off (e.g. a brick like colour in a young red wine), simply decline the wine when a taste is offered to you.
- Make sure the wine has not been exposed to too much heat: this is one of the most common wine faults in India, especially in Delhi. This is no surprise because of how hot India is and the general lack of refrigerated transportation or storage. As I’ve mentioned previously in my article on buying wine in Delhi, wine should be stored in a temperature-controlled environment (10°C being ideal), and below 25°C being acceptable for short-term storage. The unfortunate reality is that wine is often transported and/or stored in an unrefrigerated environment, causing the wine to become ‘cooked’. The way to recognize this is if the wine lacks freshness, smells strange (less fruity, more ‘nutty’ and somewhat like fortified wines, especially Madeira), and its colour seems off. Young red wines start to look like a brick colour, and white wines become more yellow or brownish. Heat damaged wines can also become oxidized due to the cork expanding and contracting during temperature fluctuations.
- Keep an eye on those prices, and compare between restaurants: That bottle of Chianti that your ordered for Rs. 5,000 in one Delhi restaurant can just as easily be had for only half as much in another restaurant just down the street. It all has to do with the fact that prices of wine in India are not as transparent for consumers as beer or spirits, and restaurants often have unrealistic margin expectations from wine. Customs duties may be exorbitant, but restaurant margins may be even more so! Wine prices in Delhi restaurants and hotels often bear no relationship to reality. There are good values to be had, but these are rare and you need to keep an eye out for them. If you have a favourite wine label, it may be interesting to compare prices between restaurants. Don’t be surprised by what you find because you’ve been warned!
- Does the staff seem to know what they’re doing? There are other tell-tale signs that will tell you if the restaurant you’re in is a good restaurant for wine. Look at the general way in which wine is handled in the restaurant – does the staff proactively offer you a wine list, or do you have to ask for it? Are the wines on the list available in stock or are there too many wines out of stock? Is the label clean when the wine is presented – or does it look old and scruffy? Are the wine glasses sparkling clean? Is the wine you ordered brought to your table promptly – or are you halfway through your meal before the wine finally arrives? Is the wine brought to you at the right temperature, or do you have to ask the staff to chill it for you?
The way that wine is handled in a restaurant will affect the quality of your wine experience. I hope these tips will help you enjoy wine in restaurants. Be selective and order wine in only good wine restaurants. In the rest, settle for a beer!