The growing number of exclusive wine soirées and open-to-all wine events by India’s star hotels shows there is light at the end of India’s wine tunnel
A couple of wine events planned in quick succession for this March have stirred my interest, and I’m hoping these stand to mean more than mere bubbles in a flute.
In an effort to engage with its wine-thirsty clientele, two major Indian hotel chains have planned events which are not restricted to niche clientele alone – wine clubs, gastronomic societies and their ilk. One such is The Oberoi’s Fine Wine Affair, to be held this weekend (3-5 March 2017) in Bangalore. The second is the 4th edition of the Taj Group’s International Vine & Food Experience (#IVFEx), slated for 24-26 March 2017 in Hyderabad. Both remain exclusively priced, but I’m hoping this increase in wine-friendly activity is the start of a trend within India’s F&B industry to reach out and offer wine pairings and tastings on a wider scale to those showing an interest.
Exclusive tastings in the Garden City
The Fine Wine Affair (FWA) Bangalore is planned on a fairly grand, panoramic scale. Collaborating with Brindco, India’s largest importer of fine wines and marketed and conceptualized by Madhulika Dhall or Madame La Cave as she is better known in wine circles, The Oberoi has planned for a 3 day extravaganza featuring 105 wines from the Brindco portfolio. Set in four pavilions (France, Italy, The Americas and New World) and presenting wines from 8 countries, the FWA is spread over the lush gardens of the hotel, (hitherto rarely opened up for public events) and guests can book and buy from 5/10/ 20 tasting pours (Rs 1250/2000/ 3000 or €18 onwards) which they can taste at leisure, wandering from pavilion to pavilion over a leisurely, stretched-out day. There’s food too, from special tapas created al fresco to meals at The Oberoi’s restaurants at special discounted rates for ticket holders.
The pavilions feature mid to upper-range wines from Italy, France (two of the most popular wine producing countries in the world) and New World countries. Here, you can sip wines from Montalcino to the Rhône, going back again to try the ones you fancy most. New World wine lover? The Americas will be well represented with wines from Napa Valley to Washington State, while fresh, exciting offerings from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will mean being spoiled for choice.
Then there are sold-out wine dinners scheduled for the 3rd, 4th and 5th March nights (priced from Rs4000 to Rs9500), where Oberoi Chef Ajit Raman will rise to the challenge of dazzling wine lovers with exemplary food pairings over 5 or 6 courses – all through prior booking and pre-payment.
Visheshwar Raj Singh, general manager of The Oberoi Bangalore, acknowledges that the hotel is an old hand when it comes to hosting gourmet wine and food events. But those have always been intimate dinners for 15-30, curated for exclusive wine and food clubs, he adds. This event is ideal because “we feel the city is becoming more conducive and warm towards these (wine) experiences.” The Fine Wine Affair will not feature more most commonly available wines. “The average Indian wine consumer already has a fair amount of knowledge about table wines and low-mid level wine labels, both from India and overseas… more exclusive and high-end labels would increase awareness and also to make it easy for wine lovers to sample these wines at a very reasonable price point, using the concept of ‘tasting pours’.” Will there be repeats of this or similar events in other Indian cities? “I think there is merit to doing a Mumbai edition and perhaps even a Kolkata edition in due course. Perhaps we could make it an annual event at each of these cities, so that Indian wine connoisseurs and new explorers can travel within the country and sample the best wine labels in the world every 3-4 months!” says Singh.
I’ll raise a toast to that.
Royal repasts of the palatial kind, Hyderabad
The Taj Group, on the other hand, has decided to up the ante and make their annual IVFEx very high end indeed – the 2017 venue is the ultra-luxe, historic Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, and guests who pay Rs 150,000 (€2125) upwards to Rs 850,000 for the Presidential Suite (€12,000) for the whole weekend package including stay and gala dinner, will get to rub shoulders with some very famous wine cognoscenti – the legendary Jancis Robinson OBE, MW, food and wine pairing specialist Fiona Beckett, Liam Steevenson MW and Count John Salvi MW among others. The gala dinner, by 2-Michelin star Chef Srijith Gopinathan from Taj Campton Place in San Francisco will be at the spectacular 101 dining room. This will crown a weekend of royal breakfasts, horse carriage rides, champagne receptions, croquet on the lawns and historical tours. Wine will remain the focus of the event which has being curated from its inception by wine consultant Keith Edgar. Discussions and interactions on wine will go side-by-side with the sheer indulgence of lavish meals. K. Mohanchandran, Director Operations, Taj GVK Hotels & Resorts and general manager Taj Krishna Hyderabad, the man who introduced the IVFEx concept 4 years ago says, “We have always had a judicious mix of master classes and dining events – my friend Keith Edgar, curates this for us – and he firms up an interesting, informative yet serious programme on both days with the masterclasses, which mix the whites and reds, domestic and overseas wineries, covering varietals and significant grape types.” The evolution of the event to its current grander avatar has followed the responses received from their clientele, he adds. “We had a Canadian superstar chef Marc Thuet in Year 1, our own grand chef Ananda Solomon did the gala dinner in Year 2, and this year we have India’s only 2-Michelin star chef (two years in a row), Srijith Gopinath from our Taj Campton Palace doing the dinner at Taj Falaknuma Palace. I guess the opportunity to showcase what is possibly the longest dining table in the world and dating from the 1890s (the 101 room) was too good to pass up!” The price tag isn’t too high for a true wine lover, he believes. “I don’t think the price is a deterrent for a two-night stay at the palace with the opportunity to sample a menu by the only 2-Michelin star chef in India. Plus of course, participate in the discussions and the tastings with the masters!”
The idea of the stellar line-up of experts also exciting, he adds. “It will be a first to have such senior trade specialists in the room – we also have Count John Salvi MW presenting a wine, he did so much for Bordeaux over the years… And this in a residential format, where both the enthusiast and the serious wine person will have ample time to engage with these celebrities.”
To me it seems very intriguing that both experienced hotel groups have decided to focus on the higher, more developed end of India’s wine market with their formats. Is that segment the faster growing one, I asked Mohanchandran. “This is an interesting debate – at one level, we are also seeing increased requests for wines on banquet menu discussions, obviously at a more affordable price points. But, yes, there is definitely a premium consumer who is looking for good quality wines at our hotels. People are more knowledgeable today and are familiar with different varietals and expect to see a ‘comprehensive’ wine list.”
Either way, burgeoning wine-related activity from Indian hotels and restaurants means consumer growth is possible and happening. While the common consumer is testing the waters with the entry level wines (only not very ‘entry level’ once state taxes are added on), the evolved wine drinker is showing greater interest in paying big bucks for that ultra-unique wine experience. This should be music to the ears of wine producers around the world who have bet early on the growth of the Indian wine market. Still small, still growing – but every Fine Wine Affair and IFVEx holds up a light to the way ahead.
The Fine Wine Affair 2017 at The Oberoi, Bengaluru – Call +9180 2558 5858 or email Prodyut.Chatterjee@oberoihotels.com
The Taj International Vine and Food Experience 2017 – Call +91 40 6629 8585 or email firstname.lastname@example.org