June 10: At a tasting with a group of lawyers, we were asked an important question: Why does an Indian wine taste better when you buy it from a winery than from a retail shop? The answer is bad storage and it's about time the wine industry does something about it, writes Sourish Bhattacharyya
The other day a friend of mine who owns one of Delhi 's 55 private liquor vends took me to his store, which is across the road from one of the city's upmarket neighbourhoods, so potentially a great market for fine wine. To my horror, I found a couple of shelves with wine bottles standing upright, exposed to the heat (the average daytime temperature in Delhi now is 32 degrees C) and humidity.
The store advertised prominently that it sold chilled beer - the freezers, it was apparent, had been provided by UB because they were plastered with Kingfisher branding. For the Bacardi Breezers, there was a small refrigerated showcase. But for wine, which is the most susceptible to temperature and humidity variations, the vend owner pointed to a blower that wasn't working. Anybody with any understanding of wine chemistry will point out that an air cooler is the enemy of wine because it injects humidity into the ambient air. Wine, like medicines, have to be stored in a cool, dry place.
How cool is cool? Ideally, all wine - white, red or sparkling - must be stored at 13 °C . Serving temperature can vary from 8 °C to 16 °C, but storage temperature is something that cannot be messed around with.
Wine stored at higher temperatures will usually taste 'cooked', 'jammy' or 'maderised'. Temperature variations from day and night, moreover, causes the wine to expand and contract, enabling oxygen to enter the sealed bottle, react with the bacteria present in wine, and convert it into acetic acid (vinegar).
Now, suppose the storage temperature rises from the ideal 13°C to 23°C, the wine will age faster by 210% to 800%. Concurrently, the deterioration factor that converts wine into vinegar also speeds up at the same rate.
Let's return to my friend's store. I love wine, but I didn't dare buy a bottle from the store. When you're paying Rs 490 for a bottle of wine, the last thing you would want to drink is vinegar. But my friend, with all good intentions, is unwittingly selling vinegar. He is also selling oxidised wine because the way wines are displayed - in an upright position - the chances of their corks drying up and providing free passage to ambient oxygen are high. There's a reason why wine bottles are kept in a 'sleeping' position - that way, their corks stay wet and their tiny pores are unable to facilitate the free flow of oxygen. And oxygen, as we now know, is wine's most potent enemy.
What saddens me more is that the country's wine producers and distributors are turning a blind eye to this basic problem. I believe the wine culture is not growing in this country because people do not have access to decent wine. Most people I speak to complain that wine tastes bitter (it's obvious they have drunk oxidised wine) because good wine is by definition a harmonious balance between acid and fruit. They also complain they get a headache after drinking wine.
You are likely to get an alcohol-induced headache principally because of two reasons - you could be dehydrated, which is why you must drink water when you drink wine, or you could be drinking on an empty stomach, but the sulphur dioxide present in wine, which is an important preservative, is responsible for most headaches.
European Union, American and Australian regulations have made it mandatory for wine producers to mention the sulphur dioxide content. India doesn't have any such rule and I suspect that most wine companies sell products with a high sulphur dioxide content just to ensure they can survive high temperatures.
Wouldn't it be more sensible for wine companies to follow the lead of UB and Bacardi and invest in wine chillers to store their products at selected liquor vends? The Chinese firm Haier has already introduced low-cost chillers into the market; Voltas, too, is ready to launch its line developed with Italian expertise. So, the wine companies can no longer complain that wine chillers are too expensive for them. By providing liquor vends with chillers, they'll not only be providing customers with a refreshing drinking experience, but also develop these for on-site branding to facilitate top-of-the-mind recall for their labels.
The wine companies owe it to the consumer and to themselves. They deserve a decent market share in a sea of whisky.
Although the problem has been alleviated to some extent, storage does seem to be an important challenge even 15 years after this news item, primarily due to high costs of storage and lack of appreciation for the need to do so. Indian Wine Academy advises its readers to buy wine from the stores that are at least air-conditioned, even if not stored at the proper desired temperature of 13-15deg C. For the daily drinking wines, the temperature of 22 degC can be acceptable, though not recommended for premium wines costing above Rs. 3000-editor
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