Indian wines seem to be charging ahead in terms of quality, branding and pricing, with Sula Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot commanding premium over the ubiquitous Italian offers from Frescobaldi, as I discovered during my visit on Sunday to Hotel Oberoi’s Cecile property where wine prices are generally quite reasonable at all levels even though there is a virtual monoply of a single importer, as in other locations.
It looked like a misprint on the wine list when I read Pinot Grigio Danzante 2008 and Pater Sangiovese 2006 listed at an excellent Rs. 400 a glass (inclusive of sales tax-Rs.333 without it)-both quaffable wines from Marchesi de Frescobaldi, the Tuscan producer represented in India by Brindco. All wines from Sula- Chenin Blanc 2009, Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Cabernet Shiraz 2008 and Sartori Merlot 2007 were listed higher at Rs.420 a glass, as was the Sula Brut!
An informal chat with the sommelier at the bar confirmed what I had anticipated. Most expats look for an Indian wine in the hotel restaurants and Sula fits the bill quite well because of its strong branding. ‘Indians prefer ‘imported’ and are happy ordering the Frescobaldi, with a few ordering Kendall Jackson too.’ He informed me. Going by the theory that the expats don’t mind paying a bit extra to try out some Indian wine, the sommelier said that a couple of months ago the price of Sula had been increased from Rs.375 a glass to Rs.420. (Rs. 420! Sula should protest-Rs.415 or Rs.425 would have been more appropriate, no?)
Surprisingly, the restaurant wine list still shows Sula wines at Rs.375 a glass. Arguably, a rupee-conscious customer could legally get away with paying the lesser amount when he or she orders wine at the restaurant, till they get the new price list from the printer.
When coaxed a bit, the sommelier estimated wine consumption to be 80% by the expats and only 20% by the Indians-a rather disappointing proportion, which can be explained by the fact that the Indians mostly come with full and extended families (there were decidedly more children running around the lobby than adults of wine drinking legal age when I visited the hotel). A recent group visiting from UK had increased the wine sales to over 2 cases a day- a happy situation for Sula. (They ordered bottles of wine and gin and tonic only, said the sommelier with a smile).
Of course, another important factor for higher price for Sula, he might not have factored in, could be the purchase price. Since the hotel finance departments constantly insist on the beverage ratios, the imported Italian wine might be costing less than Sula -with no customs duty and high excise duties to worry about in Himachal Pradesh than the Indian wine.
Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Noir at Rs. 2300 a bottle and Rs.460 a glass offer a very good alternative as does Chianti Ruffina Nipozzano at Rs.2500 a bottle- if 3 or more drink wine. If you are in a mood to splurge at a serious multi-course dinner, Stag’s leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 is an excellent value-for money wine at Rs.5000. The prices as generally at all Oberoi properties, include VAT which happens to be a reasonable 13.75% in Himachal Pradesh unlike in Delhi where it is 20% to support a splurging government.
The imported wine list consists mostly Brindco imports (oh-that party spoiler Moet Chandon!), but apparently the minority partner in Grover Vineyards has not been able to touch Sula which has practically all its premium labels sold in North India-sans Dindori in the wine list.
Hopefully, the hoteliers elsewhere in India servicing a significant foreign clientele will take a cue from the marketing strategy of this property of Oberoi Hotels and make sure they come out of their snobbery and offer some decent Indian wines-Sula and Grover being only a couple of choices.