India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Wine & Dine
May 28, 2011

Of Mughals and Other Tipplers

Text by Abhay Khewadkar. Painting by Bappa

Verve discovers that Indians were historically wine drinkers. So, what happened? Can the penchant for wine be revived?

The late California vineyard operator, Robert Mondavi once famously said: ‘When you drink wine you always meet good people’. Robert Mondavi, as also, winemaker, Ernest Gallo, lived well into their 90s and had one thing in common, a love for wine. So here’s to a long life!

In European countries, wine has been traditionally part of the culture and an integral part of the food and cuisine. In the last 15-20 years, however, we have seen the New World (USA, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile) playing a game of catch-up with the Old World. Even in China, the wine industry has grown 15 times in the last 10 years. So how can India be far behind?

Over and over again people have asked me how wines can be sold in India with the lack of a wine culture in the country. I always thought this was a bit like the chicken and egg story. When good wines are not available, how can a wine culture come about? Thankfully, in the 1990s, quality wine using wine grape varieties and French wine knowledge started taking root in India. And as they say, the rest is history….

While the commercial quality wine industry is only about 20 years old, wine is no stranger to Indian palates, as can be discerned from evidences dating back to ancient times. Artifacts connected to the culture of winemaking and drinking have been discovered at the sites of the ancient Harappan civilisation. During the Vedic period, wine was often referred to as somarasa; it was believed to be associated with Indra, and was a part of religious festivals. Soma is mentioned in Vedic scriptures as well. We also come across references to drakshasava in Indian Ayurvedic texts which was basically a delicious digestive preparation made from ripened red grapes, cinnamon, cardamom, nagkesara, vidanga, tejpatra, pippali and black pepper and which contained natural alcohol.

The Shaivite cult had the practice of consuming intoxicating drinks as a part of their religious practice. In ancient India, the madiralaya, as known from the texts, were important places of recreation and amusement. The concept of madirapaan is ubiquitous in legends as well. Even during the days of Kautilya, the mention of beverages prepared from fruits as a royal drink, has been discovered. During the medieval period several rulers had the habit of drinking in courts during ceremonies and celebrations. The large tribal population too had in their custom, the culture of social and religious drinking.

For almost a thousand years or so wines have been made in India! European travellers brought wine to the courts of the Mughal emperors, Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jehan. Royal vineyards enabled the emperors to have a taste of the red (Kandhari) and white wines (Bhokri, Fakdi, Sahebi…) that were produced for the royal favour. The next important contribution was made by Portuguese settlers who not only improved the wine they discovered in the 16th century when they came to Goa but also introduced a new variety of wine for the Indian sub-continent: vindaloo. The practice, started by sailors of keeping meat in barrels of wine laced with garlic properly mashed with the spices of India, gave birth to this new range originally called Vin d’ail. References to the famous Persian wine, Shiraz, which was often sent to the Moguls in India, and later to the British, have also been discovered.

Under British influence vineyards were established and a number of Indian wines were exhibited and favourably received by visitors to the Great Calcutta Exhibition of 1884. Even though the Indian vineyards were totally destroyed due to unknown reasons after only a few years, the penchant lived on. This and several such episodes helped in keeping the interest regarding wine alive. And eventually after several years it was revived in 1985 and continues to thrive.

Swirling and Tasting
Clarity, aroma and ‘mouth feel’…

Each wine has a unique story to tell and the art of wine tasting helps to reveal that story and the significance of the wine. It requires sight to gauge the appearance, smell to distinguish the nose and taste to determine the palate of the wine.

Look for colour, clarity and age. Clarity refers to the wine being bright and clean. A white wine gains colour as it ages moving from pale yellow to golden yellow, while a red wine loses colour and moves from a dark purply-red to an orangey-red.

The nose of a wine will determine the aromas and bouquet. Swirl around in the glass and sniff. You may get a variety of aromas, from fruity, floral and vegetal to spicy. This prepares you for the flavours that you will taste on the palate.

When tasting, take a sip, swirl it around the mouth while drawing air in through the wine to help it reach different parts of your mouth and open up the flavours.
While gauging the palate, the sweetness can be distinguished on the tip of the tongue and will determine whether the wine is sweet or dry. Acidity needs to be established. Acidity does not mean a sour taste, it simply refers to the mouthwatering sensation a wine gives you once it has been swallowed.

Examine the ‘mouth feel’, which refers to the weight of the wine on the palate and can range from being light bodied or medium bodied to heavy bodied. Determine the amount and quality of tannins. Tannin is a sensation of dryness on your gums and teeth after tasting.

The flavours of the wine on the palate should be similar to the aromas on the nose. There may be new flavours and some may be emphasised. Finally, determine the length of the wine which refers to the amount of time that the flavours linger in your mouth after swallowing.

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