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Chennai women say cheers to good wine

WINE is slowly maturing into a drink of choice among Chennai women when entertaining at home or dining out.

Says Captain Arjun Nair, the founding president of Terroir, Chennai’s first wine club: “Apart from enjoying its complex flavours, the perception is that wine contains less alcohol and has a more refined social connotation.”

He adds that Terroir, which has several women members, is not a social networking club: “It’s an organisation where people who are deeply interested in, or knowledgeable about wine, meet and enjoy wine-related activities.”

Such as the recent event, An Evening with Wine Legend Steven Spurrier, held at the Sheraton Park. The evening happened to be the 10th event attended by the members of Terroir, which recently celebrated its first anniversary.

Mr Spurrier is chairman of the Board of Wine Advisors, Wine Society of India, consultant editor to the wine magazine Decanter and wine consultant to Singapore Airlines. “It won’t take too long for wine to be a part of family life in Chennai,” he suggests. “Indians are very social people and generous hosts, and wine-drinking is a social habit.”

Capt Nair adds that the rise of Indian wineries such as Sula has made wine-drinking more visible. He also accepts industry observers’ suggestions that more Chennaites travelling abroad in recent years is one reason for the growing interest in wine. “It’s in the last four-to-five years that wine is more regularly offered as an option in peoples’ homes,” he says.
When a host has a well-stocked wine cellar, women seem to gravitate more towards the grape than other drinks, says one of Chennai’s top wine collectors Ashok R. Thakkar. A generous host, Commodore Thakkar, who is part of with the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association, has been known to stock over 1,500 bottles of wine in his bar.

Wine is also being served regularly at Chennai’s food and beverage outlets: Hip bars such as Chipstead and Blend, restaurants such as On The Rocks and Prego that are famous for their wine cellars, bricks-and-mortar clubs such as the Madras and Presidency Clubs.

Spurring on the market are roadshows at the city’s top venues by Indian wineries such as Four Seasons, or visiting ones such as the Italian Frescobaldi. There’s also the ubiquitous bootlegger, as much a part of the Chennai oenophile’s entourage as the right corkscrew and Spiegelau wine glass.

Among the city’s wine importers is Mr Hari Balaji, who started Risan Foods & Tobacco in 2006 “to promote wine understanding and appreciation”... an increasingly profitable business. His focus is New World wines in general and Australian in particular; currently he does about “two per cent of the total imported wines being sold in Chennai, importing about 750 to 1000 cases a year”.

Mr Balaji has noticed a growing number of “small social groups in Chennai who meet once a month to try out different wines and pair them with different food”.

However, price can be a major barrier. Most often, it costs significantly less to have a nice, well-mixed cocktail or beer than a glass of top-quality imported wine.

“Wine is still not a drink for the ‘poor (wo)man’ in Chennai, a city where wines are not allowed to be retailed,” says Mr Balaji. “Wine served at hotels and clubs here are a lot pricier compared to Bangalore or Mumbai.”

But Chennai-based winemaker Salony Kane is optimistic about the future of wine in the city. She points out that a world-class event such as the Steven Spurrier evening is “an indication of how serious women – and men – in Chennai are about appreciating good wine”.

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