No more sour grapes

India may have one of the world's smallest wine markets but it's also one of the fastest growing markets. Here's how you can help boost growth. Go hit the bottle.

Wines are a matter of choice; in India, given a choice, most people prefer to order something else on the menu! Funny as that may sound, things are changing. People are switching from whisky to wine faster than they switched from desi ghee to polyunsaturated fats.

If health and style are the most important elements of a successful and balanced life, then wine can offer the maximum benefits at both ends. And that's all the unpaid, unwarranted, unproven publicity, I will allow wine for now. Let's get down to the more serious business of drinking; the only test that matters. I intend to take you on a national wine safari where we shall hunt down good bargains, get a few opinions and experiment with new entrants on the block. Wine hunting is a lot like looking for a good hotel when travelling- there is no telling from the outside how pleasing the inside will be. The only way out is to try as many as possible before one finds what one likes.

Sadly, while Indians are becoming sweet on wines, our systems are still in vinegar mode. As a result, we have archaic rules and a duty structure that encourages neither trade nor consumption. Andhra has abominably high taxes while Gujarat is dry. Karnataka and Delhi allow monopolistic state-owned distribution, and Maharashtra needs a licence to drink. We still can't order online or bring in more than two bottles from abroad and we definitely can't take those bottles with us to a restaurant to enjoy them with our meal. I could go on!

But a true lover knows not failure and a true wine-lover knows not the rules; well at least he doesn't let them come in the way of enjoyment. And reserve the disdain - we are not bad people; just hedonists out for a harmless good time. So given all the barriers and obstructions, what can we bring home from our hunt that will occupy an apt, if not a commanding, place on the dinner table? Let's scout on.

New wines, both local and foreign, are finding their way to Indian shop shelves every day, with prices ranging anywhere between `300 and `30,000 and beyond. But the most important segment remains the entry level-the price range at which we find maximum sales and consumption. Relying more on common sense and less on common variables, one can safely peg that figure to be around `1000. That is the figure few people cross while buying wine; be it firsttimers buying out of curiosity or those looking for a bottle to anoint a casual evening. In reality, this figure can safely be assumed to be far lower and `1000 is perhaps on the outer fringe of the range.

My advice to help you in your search is this. For entry level wines, try and buy recent vintages. A wine which is more than two or three years old from the vintage marked on the bottle's label may already be spoiled or at least way past its best. Any deposits and sediments in a bottle of wine are not a bad thing but only when you're dealing with middle to high end wines.

In India, Maharashtra leads the pack in winemaking. It has the maximum number of wineries, the most supportive administration and major incentives to boost the industry. But other states are also getting into the act. Take a trip to Himachal Pradesh and you will be surprised at how many stalls selling locally-made fruit wines have sprung up along the highway. You'll get apples, pears, peaches, flowers, and some more apples; everything except grapes. These "wines" are extremely sweet, enjoyable as an early evening aperitif at best. Goa too makes a lot of wine but, given the absence of locally-grown wine grapes, these aren't wines that I am too inclined to include in this study. I wouldn't exactly call Goan port or Goan dry wines a wine. Yes, the state makes some really good feni, and let's keep it at that. Remember never to buy from a place where the wine is stored in upright cartons, and worse still, lacks air-conditioning. Wine is delicate and deteriorates fast when not tended to properly. Also, avoid bottles where the cork seems to be sticking out. This means the wine has been stored in excessive heat and has in all probability lost most of its flavour and aroma.

With foreign brands, the choice is not expansive. There is a lot of cheap German sparkling and sweet stuff out there but it only distracts from the truly drinkable stuff. There are also wines from Europe labelled 'Table Wines'. Try and avoid these; they are not value for money, and should not even be used for cooking. California is the only exception since it often marks sip-worthy wines as 'Table Wine',using the term as a generic term for 'Cooking Wine'.

Anyhow, this is how I look at it: from the day I opened my first email account, I've received endless spam but I've also got highly valuable information. The ugly wines you come across on the shelves have a similar retarding effect. They may delay your selection process and even destroy an evening or two but don't let them get you down. Just keep a record of the wines that you didn't enjoy and try and avoid either those grapes or those winemakers or that region. Don't worry, You'll still have a million options to choose from.

So what wines will deliver on all its promises and yet not cost the earth, or one's life's savings? To find out, I spoke to some very relevant consumers (people who actually pay for the wine they drink and buy it often to entertain at home) and asked them what their preferred bottle was. I also got in touch with some eminent managers from the hospitality industry (people who are in the business of serving wine on a routine basis) and asked them what they found easiest to sell as well as what they considered true value for money. Beyond the realm of service, I also concerned myself with what wine they themselves drink when unwinding.

Most voiced their concern over the consistency of Indian wines, saying that quality varies vastly across bottles. One gentleman said, at times, even the most expensive of Bordeaux wines turns out to be an utter disappointment when bought from Indian retail. For expert assistance, RPG's Spencer's has appointed Wine Advisors in its retail outlets in the states where they are allowed. These Advisors can help you select better as well as save money. Godrej's Nature's Basket does events from time to time to help consumers interact with wine-folk and thus get a better appreciation of wines. The smaller, independent liquor vendors may not be as savvy but some like Juben Wines in Mumbai do make a great effort. Juben has a wine advisor, panoramic view, bright and funky display, and a tasting room with exclusive wines on offer.

Delhi has one significant store in the Savitri Complex in Greater Kailash II and another in a mall in Saket but neither has the range of wines that the shops in Gurgaon offer.

Wines @ Rs 700

Sula: The entire range of Sula wines that falls into this category is enjoyable, even the entrypoint Mosaic (I prefer the white to the red). The Chenin is already quite popular but it is the Sauvignon that shows true varietal character. The Rasa is one of the best Indian reds that I have tried and the Dindori isn't bad either. Satori, Sula's ubiquitous bottled exploit, is synonymous with red wines for many in Mumbai.

York: For `300, the Chenin is undoubtedly among the best that can be had.

Zampa: Nice wines but it's the sparkler that steals the show. Great wine, great bubble.

Renaissance: Good, honest wines from winemaker Shivaji Aher.

Deccan plateau: The wines are pretty good, especially the reds.

Grover's: Although a bit on the higher side of the range, these still hold one of the best reds within this price range.

San Medin: This is a great entry-level wine from the Spanish house of Torres.

Jacob's creek: Probably the best valuefor-money brand in this price range.

Hardy's: People may scoff at it but I assure you that the Riesling is one of the best wines to serve for a fun gathering.

Malambo: This Argentinian wine is very sipworthy, and very affordable.

Georges duboeuf: A great name and some fantastic whites and reds, especially the light reds with the Gamay grape, for those who are not serious fans of red wines.

Lancers: Good Portuguese selection, mostly available in Calcutta. Great bang for the buck.

Corte Giara Pagus Valpolicella: A very good medium-bodied Italian red. Definitely value for money

Rs 1,000-1,500

Reveilo: One of the most serious indigenous wine efforts going. The latest launches are truly awesome: a Grillo white and a creamy and fruity Late-Harvest dessert wine.

BIG Banyan: Another fine wine house. Their late harvest white is perhaps the best out there. FOUR SEASONS: Great produce for the price, especially the Reserve range. A good Viognier white too.

Good Earth: The general consensus is that these wines are way overpriced. But they are strong and jammy and some people like that.

Yellowtail: After having conquered and dominated the US market, they're here now to do the victory dance with some great wines.

Martini Asti: Fizzy, white, and slightly sweet. Definitely the funnest wine there ever was.

Prosecco: Poor country cousins of sparkling wines made in the traditional method. But hey, as long as it sparkles, and doesn't pinch, I say it's more than worth it.

Carlo Rossi: A seemingly insignificant nomenclature, but what's in a name? The rose is one of the most pleasing to be found.

Fetzer: A Californian name and one of the few biodynamic wines in this range. What is biodynamic, you ask? Think of it like Vaastu of the vines: balancing energies for harmonious winemaking.

Laroche: From the Rolls-Royce of Chablis come some modest offerings from their South of France property. Good sipping stuff.

Blue Nun: A great German white.

Farr Estate: Some of the best (white and red) wines you can have from a Aussie super-estate at this price. Period.

Rs 2,500 and above

Mas La Plana: This rich corpulent red from the Spanish house of Torres is a fullbodied food accompaniment.

Champagnes: Most of the ones available lie in this price range, generally upwards of `6000. Are they worth it? That depends on the value of what you are celebrating. If your joy can have a defining value then, by all means of reasoning, Champagne is an unnecessary expense.

Tre, Brancaia: Three grapes, three vineyards, and the third wine from this very famous Tuscan house. This one is for the connoisseurs.

Michele Chiarlo Barbera: An excellent Italian red that is so supercharged that it can age for a good part of a decade. However, you don't need to wait that long if you wish to enjoy it sooner.

Shaw & Smith: What would you expect but more greatness from an alliance that boasts winemaking experience and Australia's first MW?

Hans Lang: A great German wine house. Excellent Riesling and always a crowd-pleaser. That is if you can afford it for your crowd.

Stag's Leap: Reputed Californian wine house, with super reds.

Miner Family: One of my top Californian houses; great white Viognier and a lovely red Syrah too.

Planeta: A super wine house from the Southern reaches of Italy, it makes some heady flavourful wines.

Barolo: There are very few available here but they're rich, heady wines.

Francis Coppola: A wine from a director. Could have been grounds for a classic 'Appeal to False Authority' fallacy except that the wines are really good.

Bourdeaux Reds: Quite a few are available and the outlets who stock them store them correctly and keep them under lock and key. Yes, they're expensive but nothing makes a bolder statement.