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Outside the parallels

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MUKUND PADMANABHAN

Innovation, not imitation, is the key to good wine

Why can't India make something that matches the severe purity of a Sancerre or the manifold layers of a Bordeaux? One answer has its basis in the conventional wine map of the world.

In this atlas, good wines are produced along two belts on either side of the equator, roughly between the 30th and 50th parallel. France, Italy, Spain, California and Oregon fall in the Northern band and the Southern swathe accommodates most of the new world by including South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and the wine growing areas in Argentina and Chile. This latitudinal hypothesis presumes that wine quality is dependent on geography, and not, by implication, on terroir (microclimatic conditions) alone.

It is true that all great winemaking regions fall between the two parallels. But, does this make the hypothesis that good wine cannot be produced outside these latitudes correct? Like all grand theories, I suspect this one overstates its case. There can be no argument about the fact that the broad climatic conditions in these belts have made it suitable for viticulture. But good wines can — and are — made outside them.

I experienced one exception to the latitudinal theory a couple of months ago during a visit to Brazil. My hostess was keen on making a point about the quality of Brazilian Cabernet Sauvignon blends after I reacted indifferently, and possibly, somewhat impolitely, to a bottle I was served up. During the next lunch, she ordered a couple of impeccable Bordeaux-style reds, which were seamlessly integrated with ripe tannins, and which would have held their own on any table in the world. Brazil's wine regions are spread far and wide; interestingly, one of them, the Vale de Sao Fransciso, is just nine degrees south of the equator.

Other countries that are situated outside the parallels and beginning to get noticed include Canada, Ukraine, Romania, Thailand, China and — yes — Britain. Will we be talking one day about new latitude wines from such places in the same breath as the old and new world wines? In a world where prejudices run deep and habits die hard, it's difficult to say. Remember how hard and for how long Napa Valley had to struggle before becoming recognised as one of the world's leading wine regions.

The story of worldwide acceptance for new world countries is inextricably linked with their producing a signature wine. New Zealand redefined Sauvignon Blanc by teasing out citrus flavours with green, grassy undertones, and not by merely recreating the Poilly Fume. South Africa invented Pinotage by combining Pinot Noir and Cinsault, creating a wine that has become symbol of its unique winemaking tradition. Argentina took the Bordeaux blending grape Malbec and elevated it into a stunning single varietal. Chile did pretty much the same thing with Carmenere. (For value for money and for variety in drinking experience, there is nothing better today than Chilean Carmenere, with its full body and its distinctive spicy bite.)

In the new world, recognition has been won not so much by imitation but innovation. The wine industry in India would do well to keep this in mind. There is only so much purchase in trying to reduplicate a Bordeaux or a Burgundy. The real challenge is to create a distinctly desi wine — one that is both good and wholly ours.

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