I can’t deny, a wave of excitement rushes over me everytime I research a food and drink piece.. This time, more so, as the subject was wine – and Indian wine at that. I had previously attended a wine tasting at La Porte des Indes, London and was eager to find out more. It’s easy for people to think of Indian wine as a reasonably new venture which may not match their traditional expectations of the drink, but as I quickly discovered, these wines are as good as any other and the tradition of wine in India goes back further than we think.
I met with Sherin Alexander Mody, Executive Director at La Porte des Indes. A chef in her own right, Sherin works alongside head chef and partner Mehernosh Mody. We went through a series of Indian wines the restaurant stocked and to my delight, Sherin, like any good hostess, suggested small dishes that would go well with the respective wines. She explained the unique quality of each one, its merits and discussed the respective vineyards.
La Porte des Indes, adopts the line ‘the legacy of France in Indian regional cuisine’, as such, its food, though Indian, demonstrates a successive blend of European influences. Think of the old world colonial history that has been elegantly married to Indian culture for the last several hundred years – spanning the east to west of Southern India. Similarly, the wines the restaurant have been serving have been chosen by variations in age, character and provenance. Ultimately, however, Sherin touched on the idea that any wine can accompany any dish, and that taste, is always a very subjective experience. Some flavours will always work well with others, but taste overrules typical wine rules. In a recent blind tasting, Sherin commented that tasters were offered Indian wines and asked to locate their origins. They chose from popular wine growing regions in France and South Africa, failing to note any particular distinctions that would set Indian wine as weaker than any other. All the literature from the vineyards we discussed, including Grover, Sula and Ritu – claim that India’s varied ecosystems offer rich biodiversity in the yield of grape produced to match that of any European climate. Also, as production methods have evolved, we established that the current quality of the wine is higher today than ten-twenty years ago, where the wines were perhaps too rich or sweet: good perhaps only for cooking and Port-like in consistency. Today’s wines feel more refined, all the way from fragrance to brand.
We started on the lighter wines, sampling the Four Seasons’ Ritu Blush. This is a confident blush, strong in colour and makes for more of an exciting pairing with fish or salad than a traditional rose or white wine would. I quickly earmarked it as a favourite in my selection. At this point, Sherin pointed out the scallops in saffron sauce and crab malabar that went well with the blush as well as a Viognier that we tried.
As we moved onto Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc from the same producers – I learnt that the food pairings that Sherin had selected were natural suggestions chosen for the nature of the spices used, rather than an attempt to quash them. For example, a cream curry, carried with it light and elegant spices, which went well with the Sauvignon Blanc. We talked about the emergence of Cobra beer as recognisable brand in restaurants in London and how this could soon come into effect for more of the popular Indian wines. The importance of the Indian wines is that they should be valued in their own right. People flock to Indian restaurants because they assume it’ll be a spicy assault on their senses and that to cope, only water, juice or beer will suffice in appeasing the kick of the food. This is an idea that the restaurant moves away from, in employing a broader range of flavour in its approach to southern-Indian food. Indian cooking is about enriching food, not making it difficult. Wine and the food therefore sit side by side, rather than having the former cleanse the latter.
We continued to sample a 2008 Chenin Blanc from Sula Vineyards, followed by their 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. This label is another popular offering at the restaurant, the latter being an award-winning wine, full of a floral aroma – akin to lilies and jasmine. I could see it working well in a number of different environments. It’s from the Dindori region north of Mumbai and on this occasion went well with small savoury samosas.
Returning to Ritu wines we finished with a sampling of their best reds, of which the Ritu Barrique Reserve Shiraz 2008 stood out as my favourite from the evening. ‘Smokey’ was one of the words to describe it and depending on your interpretation of the word, that can conjure mixed feelings. For me, it captured everything that I like about a red, soothing, comforting and velvety.
I described to Sherin that my analysis of wine was usually made on the basis of experience and memory rather than aroma and taste alone. So, whether it be a Ritu, Sula or Grover wine, it’s more about sensation the wine reminds me of most. Luckily this was often a good one. We talked about English wines, biodynamic wines and the changing face of food and drink across the London restaurant scene.
Of course, Sherin’s prior experience as a chef, gives her a natural nose in terms of what to look for, but we concluded that where spices and wines are plentiful, the pairings one could make between food and drink were infinitely variable. Towards the end of our evening, Mehernosh came out to greet us and we were offered the chef’s selection of puddings. This featured a sweet samosa, with salted caramel ice-cream and a mango-mess (an Indian take on Eton mess). It was a perfect opportunity to bring back the glass or Ritu blush that I had started with and polish it off.
For Sherin and Mehernosh, the restaurant, alongside their passion for food and drink is part of everyday life. This was an opportunity to learn about how the face of Indian wine is changing, but in doing so, it tells us more about the continued effort that goes into the whole dining experience. In their attempts to keep the levels of service high, owners like the Modys put careful consideration into what they offer. With wine producers now approaching restaurants, rather than the other way around. Sherin and Mehernosh have chosen wines that not only compliment the food, but will help to serve the reputation of Indian wine as it continues to grow in prominence across Europe.
As I left, Sherin took me around the restaurant. In the time we’d spent speaking, it had transformed from a quiet afternoon spot, to a bustling hive of activity. The plants, columns, uniforms and paintings all converged to make the upstairs feel like a cross between a Rajastani haveli and a Pondicherry villa. What a fitting environment, I thought, for Indian wine to end up, after its own journey from Moghul cups, to colonial rule and now European restaurants.