NEW DELHI — Having mutton curry for dinner? Then a German Riesling, with its subtle tones of mango, lychee and jasmine may be the perfect accompaniment.
Unusual culinary advice, but it's swirling in the mouths of hundreds of thousands of Indians who have adopted a new deity into their bountiful pantheon — Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
Escaping from the confines of a few high-end hotels, wine is rapidly becoming the drink of choice among Indians who have grown affluent as the economy has boomed.
“People want a better lifestyle and wine is the symbol of the good life,” said Subhash Arora, president of the Delhi Wine Club.
Despite growing domestic production and an influx of foreign wines the local market is still tiny compared to traditional wine-drinking nations.
India, with more than 1 billion people, currently consumes some 6 million cases of wine a year, compared with the 250 million cases consumed in the U.S., population 300 million, and the 320 million cases sipped in France, home to some 60 million people, according to industry figures.
But with wine sales growing at some 25 percent a year since 1998, according to the government, Arora estimates there are potentially 20 million to 30 million wine drinkers in the country.
Fully tapping this market means creating a culture of wine drinking, and in the process weaning Indians from their beloved whiskey-and-sodas, Arora said.
For him that starts simply with coming up with a good name for wine. There is no word for wine in Hindi, where it is known as “sharaab,” a collective term for all alcohol “which has some negative connotations.”
“Wine needs to be called wine,” he said.
His other goal is to educate Indians about wine, and that has included setting up the Indian Wine Academy, which organizes tastings and workshops. “Wine is one of the very few drinks that need to be understood a bit to enjoy properly,” he said.
Others go even further.
Sourish Bhattacharyya, a prominent food critic and author, argues that India needs to develop its own lexicon for putting wine into a local context.
“When I do reviews, I cannot talk of notes of black currants or cassis (in the wine),” he said. “I have never had a fresh black currant in my life.”
“The beauty of nosing a wine is that it is personal. When I drink a Riesling I find lychee and jasmine,” Bhattacharyya explained. “When you hear Indians talking about raspberry, they are just memorizing tasting notes.”
He is also determined to disprove the idea that wine is overwhelmed by spicy Indian dishes.
Standard pairing guides suggest only a sweet Gewurztraminer with Asian food, but lumping together the different styles, from subtle Thai to fiery Punjabi dishes, is ridiculous, he said.
In recent months the Indian Wine Academy has brought together wine exporters from Italy, Germany, South Africa and Chile with India's leading chefs, restaurateurs and sommeliers, to match wines with Indian dishes.
“We demonstrated one thing quite clearly, that Indian food can be matched beautifully with wine,” said Bhattacharyya.
“We had chicken tikka with a viognier chardonnay from South Africa, the match was perfect,” he said. German Rieslings also went very well with Indian foods, particularly mutton dishes, he said.
“Who could have guessed that German wines, from such a different culture, could match so beautifully with Indian foods,” he said.
However, he does concede that some wines, particularly full-bodied reds, clash with spicy Indian cuisine.
Local oenophiles are reveling in the surge in popularity of wine.
“Five years ago we had to rely on bootleggers to get foreign wines,” said Sanjit Das, a 31-year-old photographer who picked up his taste for wine during a stint in France.
“Now you can find any wine under the sun here,” he said, sitting in an upmarket New Delhi restaurant, a bottle of California zinfandel rose nestled in a silver ice bucket next to him.
While Indians have been exploring the joys of wine, international producers are giddy at the thought of so many budding consumers.
“India for us is a very small market but there is tremendous potential,” said Chilean Ambassador Jorge Heine, who hosted a recent wine-tasting on the lawns of his residence, showcasing top-end brands from his country.
“With 1.1 billion people there is room in the market for everyone,” said Heine.
There will likely never be that many wine drinkers in a country where poverty is still rampant and more than 40 percent of the population live on less than a dollar a day.
However, those in the wine industry believe India could become a significant focus of the global wine trade as its economy, growing at some 8 percent a year, creates more people with disposable income.
That said, high taxes and import duties that drive up wine prices present a tough challenge to importers.
The levies are intended to protect producers of local wines — which, while improving, are still only competitive with low-end foreign wines. A local bottle costs about $10.
Foreign wines, in contrast, cost eight to 10 times more than they would in Europe or the United States because of duties and taxes that can up the price of a bottle by as much as 300 percent, said Emeric Christiansen, a New Delhi-based importer of French wines and champagnes.
India's harsh climate and unreliable electricity supply also make shipping and storing delicate wines a problem.
Yet despite this, wine makers, whose current markets are already saturated, still view India as the next great frontier.
“If we could sell one teaspoon of wine to every Indian ...” Heine said wistfully.
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