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The flying gurus of wine

Alok Chandra in New Delhi | June 04, 2005

"You see them here, you see them there, you see them everywhere." The ditty from the 1970s film Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines applies easily to a select band of men (mostly men) who are called 'Flying Winemakers' because they spend the better part of the year flying from one country to another advising wineries about -- well, wine.

These are the international wine gurus of our times. They don't write much about what they do (that they leave to us hacks), but are in demand because of their track record of turning round a winery's quality -- a Midas touch with a difference.

Their expertise is most in demand when grapes are being harvested. As the harvesting of wine grapes happens generally in September-November in the northern hemisphere's wine-producing countries (in Europe and North America) and January-March in the southern hemisphere (Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South America), it is possible for the winemaker to keep busy at least six months in the year.

Winemaking people

The viticulturist is concerned with growing grapes and all that it involves. The term is normally applied to a professional with formal tertiary training in viticulture.

Oenologists are the wine-makers  --  again, normally they would be people with some scientific qualification. There is a general tendency to include the study of viticulture as well as wine production in the term, as more people accept that good wine is (to a great extent) made in the vineyard.

Vintners are wine merchants. The Vintners' Company was started in 1,364 as a group of London and Gascon merchants who enjoyed a virtual monopoly of London's important wine trade up to at least the 16th century, and whose members are still allowed to sell wine without a licence. Among their current responsibilities is running the Masters of Wine programme.

Flying winemakers was a term coined by an English wine merchant in 1987 when he hired a team of young Australian winemakers to work in French cooperative wineries at harvest time. By the 1990s, people Australian-trained individuals were running teams of winemakers around the globe.

However, in India, wine grapes are harvested at the end of our dry winter/spring -- January/March in Maharashtra and March/May in Bangalore.

Which is how I met up with Michel Rolland in Bangalore in early May when he came down to visit Grover Vineyard's winery. Michel is a true wine guru: apart from owning wineries in Bordeaux (and having JVs in three other countries) he advises some 100 wineries in 12 countries on various aspects of viticulture and winemaking.

Perhaps that's why he's been singled out by the maker of a new film on wine (Mondovino) as being responsible for the "globalisation" of wine by promoting a Bordeaux style of winemaking that is said to be killing off the diversity of local flavours.

My take on such criticism is quite simple: let the markets decide. If consumers like how the wine from a vineyard is developing, they will buy it; if they feel that "what used to be made" was better, they will move to another wine.

In the past few years the quality of Grover's wines has improved tremendously: the wines are of a consistent quality, and their La Reserve (a Cabernet-Shiraz matured in oak casks) is, at Rs 400 per bottle, the best value wine made in India. So Michel (and Grovers) must be doing something right.

The other sort of wine gurus tend to be the well-known writers; Hugh Johnson, Robert Parker, Michel Broadbent and Jancis Robinson come to mind, to name just a few.

Robert Parker brings out the hugely influential Wine Advocate magazine (www.erobertparker.com) and his ratings of wines are followed more closely than the Bible; Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine is a masterpiece, and his pocket guides legion; Michel Broadbent has been writing on wine for (among others, Decanter) longer than most wine drinkers have lived; while Jancis Robinson (jancisrobinson.com) is a renowned expert taster and writer.

A guru is described as "a spiritual leader" -- and wine is, after all, a "spiritually uplifting" beverage. Following a guru is said to lead to enlightenment and salvation, so the advice of the wine gurus, taken in the right "spirit", should bring similar benefits to those who follow their teachings.

Here's mud in your eye!


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