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Updated: May 21, 2014 16:39 IST

The Reluctant Gourmet - Raising a toast to excellence

SHONALI MUTHALALY
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EVERY SIP SAYS A LOT Strict rules are followed to guarantee quality
EVERY SIP SAYS A LOT Strict rules are followed to guarantee quality

The ‘champagne experience' at the Taj Falknuma Palace in Hyderabad bursts the bubble about luxury and high price tags

Apparently you never forget your first taste of champagne. Mine was at a bustling bar in Singapore, renowned for its easygoing attitude towards customers dancing on their tables. A blackboard announced ‘champagne on the house for babes.' (Quite flattering, till I realised it was a blanket term for all women.) Nevertheless, it was a good start, shattering the illusion that drinking it on a yacht in the Cote d'Azure was the only way to go.

Except, I now realise it was probably sparkling wine. What's the difference? Thousands of kilometres for starters. Over a chilled glass of Laurent Perrier Rose Champagne at the dramatic Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, Rajiv Singhal Ambassador to Champagne in India discusses the fact that Champagne (the drink) can come only from Champagne (the geographical location).

He represents the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), an interprofessional body that brings together all the Houses and Growers in Champagne, defining policy, quality control and protection of the Champagne appellation. With 15,000 growers, 300 houses and 12,000 brands to oversee, they really have their work cut out for them! Especially considering the term ‘champagne' has become so synonymous with luxury that it's indiscriminately used to justify anything with a hefty price tag. So far, besides a variety of sparkling wines masquerading as Champagne, Rajiv's found mangoes, biscuits and — yes — pantyhose bearing the label.

In reality, if it's not grown in the production zone, delimited in 1927, it's not the real thing. The area, 150 km to the east of Paris covers roughly 34,000 hectares of vineyards spread across 319 villages. Thanks to CIVC you're guaranteed a quality bottle if it originates here since there are strict rules at every stage: only 8,000 vines can be planted per hectare with a 1.5 mt distance between rows, only bunches bearing 12 to 15 grapes can be picked, and then only 102 litres of juice can be pressed out of 160 kg of grapes.

The results are evident when we settle down for a ‘Prestige Cuvee' dinner at the suitably flamboyant Durbar Hall of the palace, glittering with spangled chandeliers and rows of long stemmed, delicate champagne glasses. Seared scallops on smoked salmon are served with Ayala Cuvee Perle, 2002, blending ripe citrus fruit with feisty bubbles. It's followed by the iconic Krug, Grand Cuvee. Rich and toasty it stands up bravely to aromatic lamb shikampuri kebab and spicy king prawns. More champagne, more courses — each demonstrating that the drink can hold it's own in any company.

As we reach dessert, we're tipsy enough to find the murmur of bubbles neck lacing up to the surface great theatre. After a dessert of strawberry mousse truffles served with Armand de Brignac Rose (a bottle so delightfully pink I consider using it as an accessory), we're rambunctiously cheery and dive into the Nawab's grand dining room, featuring his gleaming table for 101 people, and attempt conversations from both ends.

Of course, gilt and glamour are purely optional. Rajiv says one of the most memorable bottles he drank was in Paris, after he cooled it on a snowy window ledge in winter, teamed with Chicken Mc Nuggets. The point of this ‘Champagne Experience' is to prove the drink's versatility. Rajiv even laughingly offers to send some to our rooms to brush our teeth with. However, after drinking till 1 a.m., all I want is a cup of coffee when I wake up, bleary and hoarse.

Clearly, I'm a lightweight. As I stagger to breakfast at 8 a.m., I find everyone in high spirits drinking champagne with warm croissants and fluffy omelettes. Too early? Apparently not. I stick to coffee and toast. But unbend enough to sip some Louis Roederer by the swimming pool a little later. It's chilled, complex and fruity - ideal for the gentle sunshine. This is the life.

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