Wine in India: Visiting Bangalore

This week finds me in Bangalore, India, traveling to meet a client and kick off a new project for my customer experience day job. After long days of meetings, however, I’ve been exploring the restaurants of the town. Thanks to packed days of meetings, with no opportunities for down time that might be required by slightly more adventurous eating, my colleagues and I are sticking to more established restaurants that pose little or no risk to, how shall we say, the less than robust stomachs of visiting Americans, aside from whatever might be individual tolerances for spice.

I’ve, of course, been keeping my eye on wine while I’m here, and have been surprised to find relatively robust wine lists at all the places I’ve dined. I had been told by Indian friends that taxes and import duties were quite prohibitive, especially with regards to international wines, and that consequentially wine offerings were skimpy, but perhaps the buying power (and markups) of fancier restaurants make certain things possible.

The wine prices at most restaurants seem a bit high, especially for items like Dom Perignon or Bollinger Champagnes, which tend to clock in anywhere from $500 to $700 a bottle when they appear on lists, though a 1999 Dom Perignon for $400 at the Monsoon restaurant in the Park Hotel, seemed perhaps not that far fetched for say, a slightly overpriced restaurant in New York.

Other international wines range from $40 to $180 a bottle, and local wines tend to be at least $30 a bottle or more. These prices aren’t astronomical for fine dining restaurants anywhere, however, when matched with the wines themselves, they start to look steeper. A (very nice) Huia Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand was $72 a bottle (compare with a retail price of about $18) while a Renieri Brunello was $200 (available for $65 at retail).

Last night my clients here brought me to a restaurant called Shiro, which they dubbed Indo-Japanese, and which turned out to have a mix of Thai, Japanese, and Indian food with a little Korean influence thrown in here and there. I had a glass of Casa Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc (vintage unlisted — and I forgot to ask) for $14 ($56 a bottle), which was quite pleasant, and only about twice the price I might have paid for the same crisp and tasty glass in the US.

Chile, Spain, Argentina, Italy, California, South Africa, Australia, Italy, and France have all made appearances on wine lists so far, in ways that clearly show a care for putting together a range of wine selections to appeal to wine lovers of all stripes. Many of the French wines are negociant bottlings from folks like Guigal and Jadot, and many of the Italian wines are larger houses like Antinori. Intermixed with these however, I found wines from Feudi di San Gregorio, De Bortoli, and Terrazas.

My meal at the Masala Klub, the restaurant in the Taj West End hotel (many top restaurants are housed in hotels) afforded me the opportunity to thumb through a wine list of perhaps sixty or seventy selections, from Taittinger to Mollydooker to Mouton Cadet. At that restaurant in particular, nearly every table, most of which were filled with what looked like well-to-do locals or other Indian businesspeople, everyone had a glass of wine.

The local wines of India make an appearance on nearly every wine list. Sula Vineyards, whose Chenin Blanc I’ve reviewed and happily tasted on many occasions is nearly ubiquitous, as is Grover Vineyards, whose wines are grown in the Nandi Hills, about 60 kilometers from where I’m sitting as I write this.

I’ve seen a couple of funny entrants on some wine lists, from unfortunate mis-spellings (Cabernay) to slightly less than persuasive listings such as the one which jumped off the page at Olive Beach Restaurant, whose entry simply read: “Chateauneuf-du-Pape 89 Points.” Vintage and producer be damned, even at the $130 price tag. Of course, I’ve seen much the same from wine lists in the United States, so this was merely worth a chuckle as I tucked into a letter-perfect duck confit dish with grapes and root vegetables. If you’re looking to take a break from local fare in Bangalore, or want someplace romantic to take a date, this walled courtyard of a restaurant draped in canvas and candlelight is worth the trip.

While I think the majority of fuss about wine and food pairing is a waste of time, it’s worth noting that Indian cuisine can range from very wine friendly to completely wine hostile. The decisive element, of course, being the level of spiciness. Milder flavored foods from many regions of India are wonderful with crisper wines (bubbly, white, and pink) along with light reds, and the meatier foods of northern India (provided they are not too spicy) lend themselves more towards red wines with some tannin. Mild levels of spiciness are easily handled by wines with a little sweetness to them, such as Riesling and Alsace Gewurztraminer (Indian wines, too, generally lean towards a little residual sugar), but I find that once foods get to a certain level of hotness, wine tends to exacerbate the heat, and the heat, in turn, tends to accentuate the alcohol.

So while sipping wine in India is fine for wine lovers who don’t mind paying for the luxury, beer may ultimately be the better way to go. Also, while I’m far from a cocktail connoisseur, there seems to be quite a cocktail culture in Bangalore, and the wide variety of fruits and fruit juices seem to make for a wide variety of options in that department, including a lot of “mocktails” which most restaurants that I have visited so far seem to offer for those looking for flavor without the kick.

That’s it from Bangalore at the moment. I’m off to explore.