I wonder how people get together for an evening and survive on conversation alone. I know, some people drink whisky. I am game for a dram, even two, but an evening around dead-in-the-bottle malt? Thank God there is wine. At the age of forty-five, after sipping ghaatghaat- ka-paani, I converted to wine. In my book that is late stage. I have to make up for lost time.
Where does one find good wine in India? In private cellars in homes. In fact, the best wine tastings happen in people’s homes. I love the nakhra. Choosing the wines, decanting them, setting up the table, picking the right glasses. It isn’t work; it is a form of reverence. The fun part is that each host has quirks, clear preferences, quibbles, and allergies. A friend of mine finds the meaning of life in Napa Cabernet. A glass of Napa and he gets the look – like the angels have descended. Another cannot look beyond Italy, the land of a thousand grapes. There is a third who hunts down rare grapes and unusual blends and insists on a blind tasting. Have you heard of Saperavi? Freisa? How about Lucida?
The flip side to these gatherings is that the likes of us are obsessive. My partner, better by half, practices patience and the effort is often visible. Our marriage has survived because she is a yogi. She was excited to know that Covid affected the sense of smell and taste. Here perhaps was God’s answer to her questions. I contracted covid, I came through with mild fever, I realised she was watching me.
“Feel better?” she asked.
“Hungry,” I said. I sniffed the air. “Are we having kadhi for lunch?”
She was amazed, a little disappointed perhaps, that I could smell something like kadhi from a distance.
Past covid, with my taste buds intact and my sense of smell keener than ever, the morbidity the world went through strengthened my resolve. There was so much wine out there and so little time. A couple of days later I poured myself a Pinot from Santa Rita Hills. I sniffed some cherry cola, I sensed red fruit and tobacco as I swirled the amber liquid in my mouth.
“Why do you make those strange noises?”
I wasn’t aware. My mouth was contorted; the wine was where it should be – under my tongue.
“You have spilled some.” I had. “Why do you spill red and not white?” I spill both but the damn red shows? She dabbed some salt on the tablecloth. “Fine, give me some of that juice.”
Why? “Because I can’t stand you having such a good time.”
The evening was promising, the host was well-travelled and generous. He had a varied selection and he allowed us to browse his large EuroCave chiller. He had labelled regions. Browsing wine is a candy store experience. I am a child in such situations and easily dazzled. Our host had returned recently from Piedmont and so the first wine we opened was from the region. Rita, a fellow invitee who I had just met, was introducing the wine, she spoke about the pleasures of the approachable 2018 Langhe Nebbiolo. “I prefer this to young Barolos.”
The host agreed. “I visited Vietti and Ceretto, great producers of Barolo, and they served 2015 single vineyard crus. They were too young, closed, almost lightweight. Such a pity.”
I sat on a wicker chair in the open terrace, the weather was cool in Bangalore. Rita was saying something and I asked her the usual question. What is your favourite grape?
“Sangiovese,” she said, without hesitation. I was loathe to agree easily, it was my favourite too. “Is there such a thing,” Rita asked, “as too much Sangiovese?”
There certainly was. Just as in South Africa there was too much Pinotage that was green in the gills, or too much Shiraz in Australia that had been fed oak till it bled.
That became our topic for the evening. Too much wine, too much that just did not measure up. Who drank all that plonk anyway? Calling wine plonk was a calling card that admitted one to a select circle.
We who singled ourselves out by virtue of our wine travel to lands that pouted and produced grapes, to grapes that spoke about the terroir they came from, winemakers who obsessed about the weather, soil and oak, wines that broke the bank and some hearts.
“What are we?” I asked myself, out of the blue. It was a strange time to be asking myself that. What were we people anyway? I mean there was so much that was happening around us, savoury and not so savoury, so much that was important in our lives demanding our attention, and here we were in our little bubble with our Riedel glasses and this private obsession. Does wine really matter that much?
“What shall I open next?” asked our generous host. After a discussion about medium or heavy bodied we settled on a Brunello de Montalcino. “I got it at a good price,” said our host.
I saw the label, the vintage was 2014, a bad one in Montalcino, a year in which many vineyards couldn’t produce wine. Rita saw my raised eyebrows. “Hush,” she said, taking me aside. “There is no such thing as a bad vintage. There are difficult vintages. Yes 2014 was difficult, but difficult years produce wines with character.”
We opened the Brunello with some ceremony, poured it into a delicate swan-shaped decanter (that wouldn’t have lasted two washes in my house), and we stood around it while it aired, remarking on how light the wine was. Brick red, said someone. Light garnet, said Rita. “Nothing on the nose yet,” said our host, a little disappointed. “Wait for it to open,” said Rita. Would it open, would the vintage redeem itself, would the wine surprise us? Who knew, who really knew?
I wandered to the terrace with these questions, it was close to midnight. The city below was bathed in black and blue, a few traffic lights blinked. I held my glass up, the liquid swirled, legs descended, and I treasured the moment, that moment when a wine speaks in the glass, when after years in a barrel and some in a bottle, a wine truly arrives.