You may call me an ardent traveller. My travels in Europe and Africa have imprinted images of how quickly the appearance of places and people can change. Just book a window seat on a daylight flight on a plane and see how dramatically the panoramas of Mother Earth change within an hour. Well, I find the same variations in places and faces in wine.
Travelling around Europe, Stefan Gerber discovers afresh how diverse the world of wine is – and India is no exception.
I recently took a trip to break ground for 10 Chapters, and this marketing journey convinced me once again that I’m head-over-heels in one of the most diverse and trickiest businesses on this planet.
Taking it country by country – not only do different economies dictate the nature of the wine industry, but different cultures prefer different styles. To complicate this checkered state of affairs, different palates have specific culinary preferences. My latest wine adventure took me to the Czech Republic, Norway, France, Spain and Portugal and I had the pleasure of taking my wife, Marguerite, with me.
The vineyards and cultivars of the Moravian countryside in the Czech Republic are native to this region. They are well suited for a climate that sees much less sunshine than South Africa or India. Because of this, Moravian winemakers are not able to produce full and ripe, red wine styles. Have you heard of Palava and Norolo? I tasted some of these interesting and unknown cultivars, as well as the more familiar white wines such as Muller-Thurgau, Gruner-Vetliner and Riesling.
Regarding the variety in white wines, South Africa isn’t a match for this region. But due to climatic conditions, it is far ahead when it comes to the drinkability of South African red wines. The only way to be on par with our ripe and full-bodied reds is to blend different grapes, which is a common practice in the New World. Before departing from the Czech Republic, I was asked to speak to farmers on winemaking and viticulture practices. Hopefully my ideas got through, because it was a strange experience not to know if you have been correctly translated!
Norway was the next stop. Being South Africans, we found this country very expensive, highly structured and economically very stable. The people are lovely too. We experienced their generous hospitality through the family with whom we stayed. (One thing, they haven’t heard of is cricket!) The Norwegian wine industry is centralized in the sense that it is controlled, regulated and owned by the state. This power is vested in a company that determines the product range. It seems, however, that the company’s desire to increase profits and the state’s determination to control alcohol is at loggerheads. As I have stated in a previous column in SI, a prohibition-style approach to alcohol consumption is an incentive for bootlegging entrepreneurs. Anyhow, the potential in Norway for wine sales is enormous and we look forward to capitalizing on this when the opportunity arises.
We were soon in the air again and this time we were off to France to visit the UB house of Bouvet-Ladubay. Language is a real problem, but we experienced an attitude change each time my wife tried the few words of French she is comfortable with. Our hosts, the Monmousseau family, did much to overcome our culture shock and our excellent tour guide, Juliette, made things easier. Nothing I have seen or learned in the wine industry prepared me for the amazing network of underground tunnels in which the Bouvet-Ladubay wines are aged. This, for me, was an awesome sight.
Tasting the sparkling wines of Bouvet Ladubay changed my perception and esteem of these wines to the extent that our company has decided to introduce South Africa to these exquisite bubblies. I can honestly say that I am now a converted fan of the Methode Traditionelle.
There is nothing lacking in South Africa’s technical abilities and knowledge of winemaking, but we can learn a lot about passion from the French. Francois, the Saumur pharmacist, almost had me in tears with the passionate way in which he explained and promoted his beloved French wines. And he wasn’t even a winemaker!
Marguerite and I also visited Portugal and Spain for further wine enlightenment. We recognized similarities in style compared to South African wines, but let’s not beat about the bush – Portugal is port. Anything else is not in the same league.
Back in India, the emerging economic giant, the land of mystery, I have learned to respect so much – what advice for your wine industry can I give from my European encounter? As I have observed earlier you need to take stock of your cultivar selection. To be blunt, the Indian wine industry will remain underdeveloped and struggling if Indian winemakers and industry leaders do not reconsider the quality, variety and viability of existing and popular Indian cultivars. Why not invest in new varietals and experiment with Shiraz, Pinotage, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc and Viognier? These cultivars can be managed with irrigation and normal vineyard practices. They are good growers and tough enough to withstand extreme climatic conditions.
Let’s take, for eg, a difficult varietal – Viognier. (I know Viognier is not a new cultivar in India, but the Indian variety is not typical Viognier.) Viognier is a remarkably difficult grape to grow. It is prone to mildew, produces notoriously low and unpredictable yields, and needs to be picked when fully ripe. If it is picked too early it fails to develop its classic aromas and rich tastes. But despite, or perhaps because of these drawbacks, Viognier has the most amazing clear, golden colour with the aroma of flowers and fruits at their freshest. Many connoisseurs are pleasantly surprised by the taste. The colour and nose hint at something sweeter but the actual taste is dry, with a variety of nuances both on the tongue and afterwards.
Although low-acidity Viogniers do not require heavy oak to provide balance, the sensitive use of wood can enhance the overall flavour. Viognier and India will match because of the country’s climate and suitable soils. This is especially true of the deep black soils in lower lying areas and the very shallow basalts in the hills (which are not that easy for growing grapes).
Although one can expect lower yields, much lower than the current favourite, Chenin Blanc, which can be grown like table grapes, Viognier – the real McCoy – promises quality, sophistication, stature and more international acceptance. Add to these benefits the positive synergy between this cultivar and Indian food, and you have a winner.
What more can I say!
SI columnist, Stefan Gerber is an international wine and vineyard consultant who consults in India at York Winery. His brands are distributed through United Vintners, an affiliate of United Spirits.
This article appeared first in the January/February 2009 edition of Sommelier India, now on the stands and at Landmark bookstores around the country.