In her article titled ‘A Continent of Connoisseurs’ Ms Robinson hits the nail on the head when she writes that in India people drink before food, rather than with the food which would make wine a drink of preferred choice. ‘ India has its own wine industry, its own punitive wine duties, and its own distinctive drinking habits,’ she says, reflecting that ‘even the most determined French wine exporter has found it hard to break the Indian social tradition of drinking long and hard – whether wine, spirits or beer, or all three – before rather than with food.’
‘Indeed parties tend to be measured a success by how late the food is served, a long way from the measured progress of a traditional French dinner with wine,’ she adds. Indians are known to have hard liquor and even wine and beer as an ‘aperitif’, for their daily fix of alcohol, before settling down for dinner when they occasionally drink beer and much less occasionally wine. Traditionally, water is use to gulp down the food although the change is slow but discernible, especially when eating Italian and other European cuisines.
Jancis who is known to be fond of Indian wine, at least in her public statements where she has said on more than one occasion that Indians unfairly slam their own domestic wines and says the Rosé is a good match for Indian food, seems to be slightly behind time when she says that Indians equate wine status. ‘What India does share with most of Asia is the extent to which wine is associated with status. Recipients of hospitality will routinely check the scores and price of the wines they have been served – unless their host has been brazen enough to assure them on serving that they were “hundred-point wines”.’
It is true that Robert Parker and indeed the ‘points’ scored by a wine by Wine spectator, Wine Advocate and even Wine Enthusiast are often thrown generously at the unsuspecting and not well-informed F & B personnel who are the front line battery involved in the purchase of wines, the consumers are not as much into the system as for instance the US or UK consumers. A certain class that she refers to does pay a lot of emphasis on the brand names. It is a common party joke to talk about one of the recipients of hospitality she refers to, as boasting of drinking the ‘best of the best’ French Mouton (implying Rothschilds when he proudly admits drinking Cadet, assuming it is the top French label!).
But as she rightly points out, drinking wine is a new phenomenon in Asia and in this, India is not alone. Till 30-40 years ago, it was not a common sight to see Asians, let alone Indians drink wine (when I started drinking wine in early seventies, most men used to scoff at the idea as they branded it a ladies’ drink-editor). ‘When I started writing about wine in the 1970s I was told firmly that Asians would never become wine drinkers. There was commonly supposed to be something about the Asian palate and physiology that had them cast as either teetotallers or beer or spirits drinkers,’ she writes in her weekly column of the Financial Times today.
‘How wrong we all were. Asia has become the focus of the world’s fine wine trade and it’s happened in a remarkably short time – principally since February 2008, when the Hong Kong government slashed wine duty to zero in an effort to make the southern Chinese enclave a fine wine hub. Today, more fine wine is auctioned in Hong Kong island than anywhere else in the world and virtually all of the fine wine traders who clustered around London now have a Hong Kong outpost. On Monday last week, for example, a bank holiday in Britain, it was a normal working day for the likes of Farr Vintners and Bordeaux Index, as so few of their customers nowadays are based in Britain and so many in Asia.’
India may be a late arrival in the near future but Jancis ought not have any doubt that India will emerge as a wine nation, both in terms of wine production, consumption and exports in the decades to come. Our government is like a sleeping giant-one day when it wakes up to the reality of its citizens guzzling hard liquor (India consumes over 500 million cases of liquor and beer as compared to 1.5 million cases of wine and that cuts across all religions, caste, class and gender), Hong Kong may look the size it is on the map, compared to India-on the map, in wine drinking. De-linking of wine from liquor unfortunately is the broken link.
‘When I was in China in March I asked leading figures in the wine trade there how many individuals they thought were willing, able and keen to buy first growth Bordeaux 2009. Answers varied between 5,000 and 10,000 – far more than there are in the cash-strapped traditional markets. Chinese magazines are now peppered with ads for wine, along with luxury fashion labels. The next generation of players in the Bordeaux wine scene, are now more likely to be sent on apprenticeships to Shanghai or Hong Kong than to New York or London.’
If there were no taxes in India like in Hong Kong, and if the wine culture caught up with the gap of 30 years, and if wine advertisements were allowed, this figures would be multiplied manifolds in India and she would not be surprised with the estimates ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 and with a latent hunger to invest in wine En Primeur to make money, even in the non alcohol drinking state (legally) of Gujarat, that number would be much higher.
We have been behind times. But the times are a changin’! And as Italians say, Chissa! (who knows)
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