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For that heady Indian flavour

ANASUYA MENON
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CHAT Sommelier Sovna Puri feels that Indian wines have a great future, and talks of how Indian food can find its wine match

The expert touchSommelier Sovna PuriPhoto: Thulasi Kakkat
The expert touchSommelier Sovna PuriPhoto: Thulasi Kakkat

Wine is very personal. What tingles my taste buds might appal yours. The way Sovna Puri speaks, she makes wine seem like an accessory such as a handbag or a perfume. “You need to understand what you like first,” says the sommelier and general manager (sales and marketing) of Sula.

In a career spanning eight years, 32-year-old Sovna has already tasted an enormous variety of wines. After completing her masters in hospitality in France, she flew to London where she worked as a restaurant supervisor at a luxury hotel outside of London city. A year later, she moved to Banares, an Indian Michelin star restaurant in London, where she got to work with wines. “I have always been interested in wines, right from the time I was a student of Hotel Management at IHM, Mumbai. Wine was just one part of the curriculum, but I saw myself getting increasingly drawn to it,” she says.

However, it was during her time in France that she had an exposure to wines. “I saw age-old wine cellars and expert sommeliers. I learnt that wine was an inexhaustible subject.” That was the time Sovna saw a career prospect in it. The three-year stint at the restaurant in London helped her do just that — learn more and sharpen her skills through experimentation. She and a friend opened a wine department in the restaurant and did intensive research on pairing wines with Indian food, a task fraught with complications. “It is an extremely challenging thing. We had to do a lot of tasting and experimentation. I must have opened 30 to 40 bottles every day,” she says.

For a long time, people believed that wines would not compliment Indian cuisine. “We found most guests having beer, but not wine. But, after we started suggesting wines with the dishes, we found almost every table with a bottle. A proper understanding of wine can actually enhance the experience of having Indian food,” she says.

While she was working with Banares, Sovna also did an advanced course in wines at the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). “I realised that the best way to understand wine was to keep tasting it,” she says. Apart from her full-time job, Sovna also travels to various parts of the county for tastings and training. She has also recently completed her educator course at the WSET.

Sovna feels it is unfair to compare Indian wines with European ones, because of India’s fairly recent history in wines. “We have no past records to fall back on. For us, it is all about trial and error. For most European countries, wines are a part of their culture.”

Even the region, soil and climate can have an impact on the quality of grapes and the varieties, she informs. However, some of the wines made in India are of international quality. Things have improved greatly, but we still have a long way to go, especially with the reds, Sovna feels.

An expert who believes that a sommelier’s job is more about skill than aesthetics, Sovna lays down the ground rules for the uninitiated: Slightly sweet white wines generally go better with Indian foods. Then again, it is not easy to generalise, she warns. There are a hundred different varieties of spices used in Indian cuisines and the style of cooking too varies a great deal between states. So, it would be safe to say that any tandoor dish would go well with an oaked (barrel-aged) wine (either red or white).

“The wine gets a smoky flavour from the barrel and would complement the dish perfectly.” Similarly, spicy food would go with a sweet wine. Acidic foods (tomato-based) go best with acidic wines. For desserts, always go with a wine that is sweeter than the dish, she says. The basic principle is that both the taste of the food and the taste of the wine should come through and result in a pleasant third flavour. “That is when you know it is perfect.” She believes India has a great future in wines. “Everything is happening here now. France and Italy have almost reached a point of saturation.”

ANASUYA MENON

Popular misconceptions

i A dry wine does not mean dry in the mouth. It means the wine is not sweet.

i When one says a white wine has to be served chilled and red wine at room-temperature, what is being referred to is the room temperature by European standards. In India, red wine has to be chilled.

i White wines are always served at an average temperature of 12 degree Celsius.

i Red wines should be served at 16 degrees Celsius.

i Sparkling and dessert wines (including Champagne) are to be served the coldest (6-8 degree Celsius).

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