What wines are best for the Indian palette? India's only Master of Wine Sonal Holland gives us the lowdown

  • Tell us a little about your story with wine. How did it take shape?

Back until 2007, as a Director of Sales in a NASDAQ-listed multinational company, I acquired great learnings about the corporate life. It was a rewarding job involving extensive travel but a point came when I felt the need to reinvent myself and do something that allowed me to harness my skills to their fullest potential.

My early travels through my work and with my husband, exposed me to wine cultures around the world. I was often fascinated by how wine was integral to food, family, lifestyle in various parts of the world and often wondered if India could one day have a thriving wine culture, engrossed in wine.

This was about 11 years ago, when there was a nascent yet a growing interest in wine among Indian consumers, but a serious lack of qualified professionals to educate and comment about wines. It was then that I decided to re-align my career interests and pursue the goal of becoming India’s first Master of Wine, the highest academic achievement in the field of wines, globally. I deep-dived into a field of I knew very little about when I started, but committed myself to establishing the ultimate credentials and a wealth of knowledge through a journey of learning, tasting and practising work as a wine professional.

My journey has been challenging but even more so, hugely rewarding. I was fortunate enough to have found my passion and pursue it. As India’s only Master of Wine, it feels great to be one in a billion and one among only 382 in the world today!

  • What must one keep in mind when selecting a wine?

Irrespective of price, everybody wants a good glass of wine. Generally speaking, established, well known producers tend to make good wines across the board. I am very particular about how the bottle has been stored so I would always advice buying wine from shops that encourage proper storage or display of wines. I choose wines at the Foodhall stores so I can vouch for the quality there. The other thing I am very particular about is the vintage. Contrary to popular belief, in case of inexpensive, every-day drinking wines, we should be opting for more recent vintages. This is because these wines have been made with the intent to be consumed within one-two years of release of the bottle. So in 2019, for wines that cost below Rs 5000, I wouldn’t be drinking anything earlier than 2016 on the label. In case of expensive, cellar-worthy wines, of course choosing the right vintage has a different meaning and here, the older the wine, the higher cam be the price, depending upon its age-worthiness.

  • We have always been curious: Why do wine sommeliers spit the wine out once they have tasted it?

Wine-tasting is a professional activity. Sommeliers taste wine to determine its style, gauge its quality and determine its right appeal among consumers. Once they are sniffed, swirled and sipped the wine, there is really no need to drink it, in order to draw inferences about the wine. A wine judge may end up tasting up to 200 wines in a day at a wine competition, but imagine if he/she were to drink up all the wine they tasted! They would most certainly be severely intoxicated and would need to be driven home!

  • Which are the lesser-known Indian wines that are a must-try?

The Indian wine industry has made important strides over the past few years in improving the quality of the wines. 10 years ago, when I started tasting Indian wines, several were faulty but today, a vast majority of them, if not all, are clean, fresh and palatable. Some Indian wineries have also launched a premium range of red wines to showcase the fruit from their best parcels of land and appeal to the discerning set of consumers who prefer drinking imported wines. Among these, some of the ones I would recommend you to try are Fratelli Sette, Krsma Estates Cabernet Sauvignon and Grover Vineyards Chêne. All three of these wines have won top accolades at the India Wine Awards across 2017 and 2018 judged by an eminent jury of food and wine professionals at a blind tasting wine competitions.

  • What are the best food and wine pairings for the Indian palate?

When it comes to food and wine pairing, I don’t go by rules and prefer to be led by my palate preference, mood and occasion. Guidelines that suggest that spicy, fiery foods preferably pair better with crisp, refreshing whites like the Gruner Veltliner, Oinot Grigio or a Chablis; elegant red wines like Pinot Noir, Beaujolais or a young Rioja. I tend to find that simpler, fruitier wines tend to adapt well with all kinds of foods because they don’t compete with the bold, rich flavours of the Indian cuisine. So perhaps, we should not sneer away inexpensive wines as long as they are well-made, balanced and enjoyable. Important to keep in mind that high-alcohol wines made in the hotter climates and highly tannic (astringent) wines like those made from Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah tend to be more difficult to enjoy with rich, creamy cuisine. But one should not stop experimenting, because the best pairing is one that you enjoy.