And another thing.
I also tried some of Sula's Sauvignon Blanc, this time at a staggeringly chi-chi boutique hotel in northern Goa, and it was fine, tasting pretty much of Sauvignon Blanc, a touch of wine gums and frangipani (I averred theatrically at the time), still the equivalent of £20 a bottle, but something was missing.
Couldn't have been the setting (on a bluff overlooking the Arabian Sea, since you ask) or the food (Goan clam curry) or the service (waiters in chrome yellow jackets hovering about like animated sunflowers). It was something about the Sauvignon Blanc, an inappropriateness which threw me, especially considering how much it was costing. Surely it would fit perfectly with the clams, which were tasting just great? I mean, a glass of wine goes with almost anything you can mention. I've drunk wine with fried eggs, fruit cake, whelks, stuffed hearts, a BLT, chilli con carne, a nasturtium salad. I don't think it goes, frankly, with porridge or a Snickers bar. But apart from that.
And yet with the clams there was a discordance which normally I would have ignored in order to get my fix of booze, but which this time got very slightly on my nerves. The elevated (figurative and literal) nature of the meal had something to do with it. But also the fact that it was Indian cooking.
This happened with the Cabernet Shiraz, too, to be honest. Those flavourings – cumin, tamarind, coriander, turmeric – so bracing, so keen to tell their own stories, just get in a tangle with wine. Plus the fact that much of the best food is vegetarian, with a light, zingy articulacy about it (if it's good and fresh): and wine seems to come out the loser, a kind of alcoholic gravy, forever in danger of settling heavily in that interzone between your midriff and your forehead. Its natural companion, you start to feel, is always going to be something much more European, greasy and unctuous; pasta, or (Heaven forfend) roast beef.
Which is why the default beverage (if you drink, and a lot of Indians don't, for religious reasons, or just because it doesn't suit) is so often the excellent Kingfisher beer, or Cobra. And if you want to go stronger, some Indian whisky, served long with soda. Well-to-do Indians of a certain age drink whisky-and-soda like there's no to-morrow, especially if you believe the stories of Khushwant Singh, but not so much wine. You've got to have something sharper and more effervescent - to keep the heat at bay, and to surf over the tasty spices.
In fact, we did get stuck into some Indian whisky, strictly for sundowner purposes, and it wasn’t too bad, a hint of nail varnish remover and a slightly boggling finish. Royal Stag was the make, A blend of Imported Scotch Malts and Select Indian Grain Spirits it said on the label, and Seagram’s were responsible for it, as they seem to be responsible for a lot of liquor in India. It also worked out at about £2.50 a bottle, bargain of the week in comparison with the Sauvignon.
And in and of itself, it offered a pretty good response to the Indian wine revolution. A lot is being made of predictions that Indian wine consumption will grow by 25% per annum over the next few years. But that will be very largely among the new urban rich, for whom it may be as much about chic as taste. Otherwise, it’ll remain a minority interest in a population of 1.2 billion, many of whom can’t afford a bottle of wine, domestic or imported, under any circumstances. They’ll stick to beer, Indian whisky-and-soda, or, if sufficiently motivated, some palm toddy.
Eurocentrically, I’d always assumed that everyone, the world over, would drink wine if cultural and economic conditions promoted it. But I think I may have been mistaken. There is no predictable primacy in drink. Or did we already know that?