For the love of wine -By Supriya Samuel
INTERVIEW WITH ALOK CHANDRA, WINE EXPERT
It’s not everyday that you sit down in conversation with a renowned wine expert and sommelier to discuss the finer nuances of wines. Well, that’s precisely been my experience having met Alok Chandra.
An absolute gem of a person – witty, smart and humble – Chandra wears many hats. Apart from being one of the most renowned wine experts in the city, he is also a regular columnist for a leading publication and runs his own wine consultancy called Gryphon Brands. With years of experience behind him in the industry there isn’t much Alok doesn’t know about how to get the best out of different wines in the world.
We caught up with Alok Chandra to get his thoughts on the expanding Indian wine scenario and his many years of experience in the industry.
Your start in the wine Industry
“In early 1987, when I was in the Corporate Planning Cell of the UB (United Breweries) Group, I had an epiphany which I communicated to my then boss, Mr. Vijay Mallya. UB was already the No.1 Spirits and Beer Company in India and was well placed to also become the No.1 Wine Producer, a category which I predicted would have phenomenal growth over the next 20 years,” he explains.
While nothing came of his efforts to buy Champagne Indage (the only Indian wine company), in 1995 Chandra was invited to head the wine division of IDV (International Distillers & Vintners) India by Deepak Roy, who was privy to Chandra’s vision of tapping into the wine industry. “I went on to launch Cinzano vermouths in India, and have continued as a Wine Consultant since leaving IDV (now Diageo) in 2000,” he adds.
New Generation of Wine Drinkers in India
As compared to back in the day, youngsters today have a wider choice of wines for varying palates and are exposed to wine on a daily basis. They also have access to a plethora of information which is widely available online. “There are mobile applications such as Vivino which makes the understanding of wine fun, accessible and easy to use. Therefore, young people are more aware, clued in and don’t get taken for a ride when it comes to buying a good bottle of wine,” he points out.
For those aspiring to be wine experts or to those still exploring wine, one should worry about nothing else other than whether they like it or not. “Drink more wine so as to understand and appreciate it or join wine courses or groups to help improve your knowledge of wine as you journey experiencing it,” explains Chandra.
Pairing wine with Indian Food or any other spiced cuisine
“It’s no wonder why so many people instantly reach out for a beer or cold water to go with Indian, African or Caribbean foods. While beer or water go best with spicy food, wine can be a surprisingly new and interesting experience,” says Chandra. He suggests pairing white wines like Chenin Blanc or Rieslings with tandoori and Mughlai food and for those who like the reds, to invest in lighter red wines that are fruitier in style and bold enough to stand up to the food they are being paired with.
Technology in the wine industry
While the absence of complete control has been one the most charming aspects of wine making and growing, the quality of grapes have started to take more precedence for growers. Chandra further adds, “Technology has brought in a new generation of sensor driven viticulture tools which are giving growers the ability to monitor and measure their vineyards like never before, thus giving them healthier and better quality grapes.”
India’s burgeoning wine scene
The culture of wine drinking is still at a very nascent phase in India but there is great potential in the country to produce good quality wine. “With the growing number of wine tasting events held every year in India, organizing of wine workshops and tours of spectacular vineyards, and also the commercial availability of local wines, consumers are being lured to explore this scrumptious drink even more,” Chandra explains.
Chandra also strongly believes that Indian wines need to improve their presence in and outside India - more states need to adopt wine-friendly policies like what’s being done in Maharashtra and Karnataka. “India will also need to reduce taxes/duties imposed on Indian wine brands so as to make wine more affordable. Internationally we need to find a grape that could be made the ‘signature’ wine of India – like Pinotage in South Africa, Malbec in Argentina and Shiraz in Australia,” he adds.
Most memorable experience as a wine expert
In 2011 Chandra attended The World’s Longest Lunch at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival – which refers to the length of the table (not the time taken).
“This was a sit-down pre-plated whitegloved service for about 1,000 people in the garden of the City Hall – It was an amazingly well-organized affair, considering that there were 5 courses, each served with a different wine (all from the Yering Station winery, the oldest winery in the state). The food was gourmet, served piping hot; the ambience was exhilarating, with jugglers, fire-eaters, and magicians keeping us entertained. Participants paid AUD 110 per head (then about INR 6,000) for seats, with groups stylishly dressed for the occasion,” he recalls. Which 4 people would you invite to a dinner you’re hosting?
“I would call Manu Chandra, Chef & partner at Olive Beach, Fatty Bao, and Toast 7 Tonic, for his unparalleled tasting palate. There would also be Ruma Singh – wine aficionado and blogger, who knows her wines, having travelled to all the key wine-making regions of Europe. Lastly (to make it 4 people, including myself) I would invite the attractive & knowledgeable Madeline Puckett of Wine Folly, who has done more in the field of wine education than the next 10 people together,” he shares.
The Indian wine industry is picking up in pace and despite the many challenges, we have come a long way. We are now producers of export quality premium wines like Sula’s Rasa Shiraz and Fratelli’s SETTE, so here’s a toast hoping the world gets to taste more of the Indian Grape!