Many of the email responses this column receives ask the same question: can you tell me where I can buy good wine? Setting aside the indignity of being treated as a shopping guide, the question points towards the difficulty of procuring good wine in this country.
If the person is in Chennai or other wine-deprived cities, my answer usually runs like this: the five star hotels are not much good unless you have wads of cash; the clubs are not much good in terms of variety, but you need to know a member; and bootleggers – who are illegal, have no storage facilities, and stock the worst kind of plonk – are a complete no-no.
The only real options, if you live outside wine-friendly cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore, are the duty free or wine stores abroad.
Duty frees are a mixed story. The good news is that they are much better than they were many years ago. For instance, Le Clos in Dubai’s Terminal 3 may be a small-sized store, but it has a fine selection, sales persons who understand what they are selling and can provide good advice, and the technology that throws up a tasting note for bar-coded bottles when they are held up against a computer screen.
In Brussels, you are advised to forsake the regular liquor stores for the upmarket Epicure, which has a much more interesting range. Such specialist wine shops exist in some other airports around the world.
The bad news is that airport duty free generally offers a predictable range of wine. As a result of the economies of scale in wine exports, these stores are stocked with the usual suspects. It’s not that the wines are bad, just that most, if not all, are sourced from the major players.
The usual suspects are invariably there. If you are looking at a moderately priced French Pinot Noir, the chances are your choice will be restricted to a Bichot or Jadot. Do a check on how many upmarket wines originate from the chateaux of Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Looking for an Opus One, the overpriced Californian wine that was co-produced with the Robert Mondavi winery? The chances are you will find it.
Small independent winegrowers rarely, if ever, manage to find themselves on duty free shelves or, for that matter, on those of large supermarkets. This is why browsing through a small boutique wine store is among the most interesting activities for a wine lover. They exist in most big cities in the West, these equivalents of small and rapidly vanishing specialty book stores. Where browsing is joy enough, but finding an unsung but exquisite bottle is ecstatic rapture.