Pragati Maidan, the premier exhibition venue in the Indian capital New Delhi, has seen many great exhibitions and important visitors. But it was only at IFE-India 2004 that it became, for the first time in its 32-year history, the venue for three days of guided wine tastings attended by the movers and shakers of leading hotels chains, restaurants, wine distribution companies, and the Delhi Wine Club.
Over 40 companies -- from hotel chains like the Taj, ITC Hotels, Hyatt Regency, Shangri-La and Nikko to India's main wine producers, Grover Vineyards and Sula Wines, as well as top wine importers, Brindco and Sonaris -- were represented at the tastings conducted by the Indian Wine Academy on December 15-17, 2004
The upsurge of interest -- Kapil Chopra, General Manager, Trident Hilton, and Amit Oberoi, EAM (F&B), The Imperial, sent all the key members of the F&B teams of their picture-postcard hotels famous for their wine lists -- naturally was caused by the wines presented at the first-of-its-kind event. Of course, the Spice Trail wines, which were being presented by Hemant Kotecha from the Manchester-based Myliko Wines, drew the most attention for obvious reasons.
Kotecha, a Ugandan Gujarati who completed his schooling in Pune and moved to London in 1972 in the wake of the wave of terror let loose by Idi Amin's repressive regime, developed Spice Trail with an Australian wine-maker using Hungarian grapes for curry lovers thirsting for a perfect match for their favourite dish. You can't get more international than that! The red marries Kekfrankos and Cabernet Sauvignon, the white pairs Irsais Oliver with Pinot Gris, and the rosé, scheduled for worldwide release in 2005, joins Kekfrankos and Cabernet Franc.
At a pairing presided over by Corporate Chef Bill Marchetti of ITC Hotels at Dumpukht, the Indian fine-dining restaurant at the Maurya Sheraton, and attended by BBC's Saul Nassé, Aman Dhall of Brindco and this writer, the wines cleared the pairing test with flying colours. Nassé, in fact, fell in love with the rosé; this writer plumped for the red, which tangoed with Master Chef Ghulam Qureshi's lamb chops marinated in pomegranate juice and grilled with Indian spices.
This was just the kind of international experience that established the truth of the observation of Matthew Benyon, Managing Director, Montgomery International, the London-based organiser of IFE-India, that the food, drink and hospitality exhibition provided "a fantastic opportunity to establish international business within an enormous and exciting market, at a key point in the history of the region's economic development".
Launched in London in 1979, IFE is today rated among the world's top five food shows. That the show now has an Indian edition, close on the heels of the IFE-Poland which targets the emerging market economies, is a reminder of the India's rising relevance in the eyes of the international food and beverage community.
India's evolving food and beverage experience reminds one of the famous (maybe apocryphal) story about the first Bata salesman who ventured into the African market in the 19th century. When doomsayers told him that he had no future in the 'Dark Continent' because no one wore shoes, he said that was the precise reason why Africa presented a magnificent business opportunity.
Rukn Luthra, who presides over Jacob's Creek wines in our part of the world, informed us at the tastings that India's per capita wine consumption was less than a teaspoon. To carry the Bata analogy forward, this humble figure is a pointer to a market that's waiting to be churned by companies gifted with the patience that helped Japanese manufacturers revolutionise India's car market and some innovative long-term marketing.
Monish Bali, one of India's leading beer manufacturers who ventured into the wine business with Blue Nun, complained that international wine houses kept presenting Indian wine distributors with a chicken-and-egg situation. Whenever Indians ask for a commitment on advertising and marketing, the international wine majors cite the low consumption levels as the reason for holding back investments in market development.
The international wine manufacturing community must take heart from the Russian experience. As was announced at the Russian International Wine and Spirits Fair, Moscow, the other big show organised by Montgomery International, wine today accounts for 30% of the total expenditure on alcohol in a country that swore by vodka; in 1989, it was 3%.
The value of the Russian wine market is today pegged at US$2.69 billion, which couldn't have been predicted by even a pathological optimist back in '89. "Russia," says Robert Joseph, Editor, Wine International, "is without doubt one of the most exciting markets in the wine world, combining an enthusiasm for new discoveries with some remarkable appreciation of traditional quality."
Clinton Ang, the cheerful, baby-faced Managing Director of Hock Tong Bee, a company that has been in the wine and spirits trade in South-East Asia for the past 61 years, is one player in the international wine business whose faith in the Indian market is unshakable. At IFE-India 2004, Ang's table always had people sitting around it as he talked about CornerStone wines with the passion of a missionary.
CornerStone wines were released into the market in 1997 to provide perfect matches for South-East Asian cuisine. Wines designed for Asian cuisines have to be easy to drink so that they don't overwhelm the rich flavours of the food. The CornerStone range may not excite wine snobs, but we believed Ang entirely when he said that the Chianti was reigning supreme in Thailand. There was something about the wine that struck a happy note in our palate.
Marchetti's vote, however, went to the Australian wines in Ang's portfolio. Our favourites were the eminently drinkable Merlot and Cab Sauv from Mount Avoca, a family-owned boutique winery in the Victorian Pyrenees. The Tahbilk Marsanne 2002 was a pleasant surprise from a 144-year-old vineyard located in the Nagambie Lakes Region of Central Victoria and rated as one of the 25 best in the world by the Wine & Spirits magazine. Marsanne is a rare white wine grape variety and Tahbilk's vines, which were planted in 1927, must be the oldest in the world.
Bangalore-based Echidna Wine Traders are importing Tahbilk and Mount Avoca, besides the other two labels from Oz in Ang's portfolio -- Trioss, the top-selling Aussie brand in Korea, and Four Sisters, affordable and exciting table wines developed by Trevor Mast, one of Australia's most experienced wine-makers.
A major presence at the tastings was that of ProMendoza, the body that promotes Argentina's best-known wine producing region, which merited an informed article in the November 30, 2004, edition of Wine Spectator. A pleasant discovery at the tastings was that there was more to Argentine wines than Malbec, which, after a wildly erratic career graph, as the Wine Spectator tells us, today accounts for 47,000 out of the 500,000 acres under vines in the land of the Andes.
The seeds of Argentina's wine industry were planted by Spanish and Italian immigrants in the late 19th century. A Spaniard who landed in Argentina in 1914, for instance, started the winery (which continues to carry his name) Pedro Carricondo e Hijos in 1929. Situated in the Ullata Valley at the base of the Andes, it produces 24 million litres of wine every year. The winery's reps spent 36 hours flying to discover a new market in New Delhi. As did the team from Rosell Boher, whose Methode Champenoise bubblies were pushed down in the popularity ratings by their Vinas de Narvaez Malbec. It got the enthusiastic vote of Tirath Singh, the hugely talented chef from Old World Hospitality who has trained under Gordon Ramsay.
From the other side of the Iberian world came Spanish wineries with a couple of surprises up their sleeves. Prospero Garcia-Gallardo, Export Director, Felix Solis Bodegas, for instance, succeeded in planting the flag of Valdepenas, a wine-growing region south of Madrid, in New Delhi with Vina Albali Gran Reserva, which manages to bring out the best in Tempranillo, Spain's best-known grape. Felix Solis, a family-owned wine house, is Spain's leading producer and exporter and is capable of bottling up to 180 million litres of the heady stuff. Vina Albali and Los Molinos are its best-selling labels internationally.
From Bodegas Vina Extremena, which is located in Almendralejo, the capital town of the area known as Tierra de Barros, came the other Spanish winner. Its wines defied the snob wisdom that attractively packaged bottles try to achieve with their winsome looks what their content cannot. The Monasterio de Tentudia combines imaginative packaging with a robust, ruby red 100% Tempranillo, aged in American oak for 18 months, that tends to linger on your palate much after you've called it a day. Not surprisingly, Bodegas Vina Extremena's wines are present in 57 countries and have won top honours in Vinitaly and the International Wine Challenge.
It may not be an overstatement to call the guided tastings a voyage of discovery navigated by the Indian Wine Academy. The tastings proved beyond doubt that one lifetime is not enough to know about the immense possibilites that exist in the wonderful world of wine.
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