June 16: Wine is an interesting subject-on one hand it is merely a food product-like a condiment that gives synergy to food for a gourmet and on the other you could immerse yourself in this vast subject so much that one lifetime is not enough to learn all about it, making it the Wine Paradox, writes Subhash Arora who believes one can evolve from being a novice enjoying the journey to the other end with extensive learning throughout his or her life, without being anxious about how much more there is to learn
I often say there are two kinds of people on the planet- ones who eat to live and those who live to eat. The latter appreciate wine better and unless there are contraindications (health or medical reasons and also social mores and religious reasons) these people expect and hope wine to add synergy to their meal. A true gourmet experience ought to include a glass or two (oh-okay! Sometimes three when you are in the party mood!!)with a relaxing dinner and good company.
Food tastes, flavours and style are always an individual choice and the same holds for wine and food and wine match for such people. You look for similar traits in both the food and wine- for instance, the colour (appearance), smell (have you ever smelt a simple roti, kebab or a melon?), flavours (with the spices and complexity) and how long the taste lasts in the mouth. No matter how fancy the food is, it must be SWAD (I define it as soul satisfying); same goes for wine.
If you love a pizza, chances are you love to have some wine with it, according to your choice. An expert may recommend a Valpolicella or a Sangiovese-based wine with a sausage/pepperoni pizza but if you like a glass of champagne, Prosecco or even a Cabernet Shiraz from Nashik or Chardonnay, it is your choice. No producer, importer, retailer, expert, friend or an influencer ought to tell you what is best for you, they can at best be helpful guides.
This category of people does not need more than a 20 to 30-minute Primer in wines to get started on wine; hopefully a white, soft, fruit forward and perfumed wine. Your personal choice matters-though it would be like drinking Black Label whisky everyday if you love this label despite a wider choice available. You can get stuck in a groove and miss out a lot of fun and variety you have not even tried. But it suffices that you drink any wine of your choice- red, white, rose or sparkling. I know of a top producer in Sicily who eats only fish but always with red wine-and 400 bottles a year! He does not need to follow any dictate by sommeliers or experts.
One lifetime not enough
Once, you get hooked to wine with or without food, fun starts and you move to a different track. Which grape variety would go better with your palate? From which countries? Regions? Terroir? Hot climate or cool climate region? Then there is a cost factor and value. Technology is changing so fast. It has changed more in the last 60 years than perhaps the previous 600. New equipment, styles and fashion, winemaking and viticulture techniques are gaining importance. Self-sustenance, climate change, natural wines are not mere buzzwords but are changing the scenario very fast. It is almost impossible to stay on top unless you are a professional devoted only to wines (and family is of no relevance).
There are around 3000 grape varieties in the world used in making wine, each with different characteristics in different terroirs (bulk wines generally excepted). The estimated number is over 10,000; rest have not even been discovered yet. There are over 80 countries producing wine including India, with new countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway joining the winemaking, thanks to global warming. Even a traditionally cold country like the UK is making interesting bubbles that are already challenging champagne in quality. Each country or region has its own characteristics. Eastern Europe has started blooming again with the changing politics. China is buzzing with activity. Japan has been using its own local varieties. India is limping along with no support from the government.
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely grown red grape globally but it has many different blends and flavours depending on the region, climate and even colour (you can even have a white wine from the dark Cabernet Sauvignon, with colour varying from straw yellow to pink). There may be only a few wineries in the world producing a Blanc de Noir Cabernet Sauvignon but this alone would take you months to learn where all they are produced and perhaps visit the wineries- stretched from China to Moldova to Germany. It is of course also possible to organise a tasting of all such wines at one place.
Wine Shows, expositions and groups tasting or wine tastings in general, are a smart way of learning about the peculiarity and specialty of some of these wines. Besides, there are hundreds of thousands of labels and processes which are not easy to master, not to talk of mastering a region. Serious connoisseurs tend to specialize in a few countries, regions and focus on tastings of mostly their wines. This is such a vast area-geographically, culturally, historically and sociologically diversified; and all of this plays a vital part in learning about these wines.
That is why I have often said that one lifetime is not enough to know about wines and this shocks novices or wine ignoramuses.
It is best to stay somewhere in the middle and try to excel in some aspect. One ought to look at wine tasting-drinking and education as a journey rather than destination. You can pace yourself according to your resources, passion and time availability but rest assured you would not be able to fully master the art of drinking and learning about wine on the planet in your lifetime.
Some people mistakenly assume that by passing a few exams and tasting a few hundred wines, they become experts and know whatever there is to know about wine. Grave mistake. My dear friend John Salvi MW with 60 years of working experience and completing 50 years as a Master of Wine this year, scoffs at the self-styled gurus who pass a couple of high level course exams and feel they have learnt enough. ‘These are like any exams that you pass, no matter at what level,’ he says. ‘Experience- more you taste, the better you are-matters.
Though not allowed to drink on medical advice, John faithfully visits several wineries and participates in wine competitions. At a wine event in Tuscany a couple of years ago, sitting next to me at a guided tasting, he was quite upset as the sommelier rambled on, describing the multitudes of flavours in one wine. He mumbled to me after she had described over 10 flavours, ‘any sommelier ought to know that it is not feasible to focus on more than 5 flavours in one wine!’
When people start drinking wine for a gourmet experience, the thirst for knowledge and appetite to learn builds up at different velocity for each drinker. Pace yourself depending upon the amount of time and money you have to invest in improving the knowledge. What is more important is to be able to taste different wines. A bit of self-study or joining a course you can afford, makes the journey more pleasant and sustained.
Thanks to the several international competitions where I have been judging and wineries I have been visiting between attending wine shows and various tastings, I must have tasted over 25,000 wines. But this is still a small number compared to the die-hard professionals who taste more within a couple of years or less. One should always pace oneself and not compete with others.
A word of caution- when you taste wines, please see, swirl, smell, sip and spit. Try not to take in a single drop. Novices should learn the Art of Tasting but would perhaps not go beyond a 100 different types of wine before forming some opinion of what they like. There is no one correct answer, though you always try to hit the sweet spot with every wine you taste and match with food.
This, seemingly, is The Wine Paradox. But with intelligent planning and tasting at the requisite pace, you may enjoy the wine journey for the rest of your life. What you cannot learn-leave it for your next life!
Drink wine always in moderation. As your taste evolves, drink better, complex wines which might be more expensive but beyond a point the curve tapers off and quality does not depend strictly on price. Although wine is beneficial for health, drink it preferably as a lifestyle food product-editor