The one thing that has always benefitted the wines of France is consistent marketing—200 years of it to be precise.
The one thing that has always benefitted the wines of France is consistent marketing—200 years of it to be precise. Since the beginning of the recorded era, France has put its entire populace behind the task of making or marketing its wines. If it wasn’t Clovis going up to Reims to be baptised and the other kings being coronated thereby cementing Champagne as the wine of kings, it was the common farmer and his family hiding their precious bottle stock from the invading Nazis. From the monks finding a way to capture fizz in a bottle (and no, it wasn’t just in Champagne that this happened, but in other parts of France, too) to Napoleon creating a classification that would immortalise the region of Bordeaux and its wines, the French wine has always been more than just a pairing possibility with an evening meal. It’s part of the very essence of being French.
Recently, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux (UGC) came down to Hyderabad to present a small yet enviably lavish selection of their wines. I was fortunate enough to be in the city and even more fortunate to be included amongst the chosen few invited exclusively to come and taste these beauties.
You know you are drinking good wine when it makes you think. Not think in the sense of ‘Where did I leave my keys?’ or ‘Who do I vote for in the next by-election?’, but more along the lines of ‘Were our ancestors actually smarter than we will ever be?’ or ‘What would it have been like to have dinner with the famous gastronome Brillat-Savarin?’ And then, great wine brings up the most epiphanic of existential introspective inquiries ever: ‘What is the essence of existence?’; ‘Am I doing my bit of trying to leave behind a legacy?’…
Bordeaux is one of those regions where there is some great wine to be had. Mind you, there is also a lot of plonk to be found as well, so one really has to sift through the clutter to arrive at greatness. The UGC makes it simple—a collective of the top (135) Chateaux of Bordeaux, all presented together under one roof. To me, it risks being too much of a good thing, especially here in India, where we are starved for a sip of the good stuff, a rare experience utterly marred by the horrible duties and taxes further exacerbated by greedy hotel and restaurant margins. To then have all these beauties descend together can leave us gaping awestruck for a considerable while after.
That said, there are houses, which may not be a part of UGC and still make great wine, but it requires extensive travelling and tasting to find them.
In India, we haven’t had much luck with the French wines that have made it through to us by the route of importers. The selection largely comprises the most basic stuff and is largely deceptive: just because the wine says ‘Château’ or comes from Bordeaux or Burgundy doesn’t make it special. And Champagne, which should have focused on connecting with Indians in the last few years, only propagated itself through events that alienated it further (so much so that today, Prosecco is a more popular name among foreign sparkling wines in India). While the centuries of marketing have helped build a solid reputation for French wines—one that makes a customer believe that it is justifiable to pay more for a wine simply because it comes from France—it may not always stay like that. Other countries often try harder, presenting their best stuff at extremely competitive prices, conducting events regularly to generate awareness and more. French wines, similarly, will need to pull up their image. A few months back, some top French winemakers, too, had visited and set up a mini expo at the ambassador’s residence lawns, trying to find local importers. And these weren’t wines being dumped on to India, but coveted stuff that vies for shelf space in the best restaurants around the world. Coming on the heels of that event, this UGC visit is a great move and more such events would only help rebuild the reputation that French wines have enjoyed for millennia. All this would mean that we Indians are in for some very delectable wines and, slowly but surely, that would help the market evolve beyond the simpler Vin de Pays category, which, for the moment, makes up a sizeable chunk (in volume) of wines imported into India from France. Once again, they aren’t bad wines, but when Joan of Arc fought valiantly and rode all the way to Reims for the Coronation of King Charles VII, it wasn’t a ‘Vin de table’ they were celebrating with!
Merci then to Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, Alliance Française Hyderabad, UGC members and everyone else who made this fine evening possible. Oh, did I mention the venue for this fabled evening was the majestic Falaknuma Palace? Truly, a fitting pairing if there ever was!
The writer is a sommelier