Alpamanta : Biodynamic Wines from Mendoza, Argentina

Someone once said that “pleasure can only be derived from personal discovery”. I couldn’t agree more. It is one thing to see pictures of a beautiful wine region and vineyards situated in the most picturesque locales, but another to actually visit them and see the beauty for yourself.

It was this desire for discovery which took me all the way to South America, and more specifically, to a wine region that is currently hot on the international wine scene, Mendoza Argentina. And I couldn’t have chosen a more adventurous way of getting there. A spectacular drive from Santiago, Chile across the Andes mountains to Mendoza, Argentina’s largest and most important wine region.

The vineyard that I chose to visit was Alpamanta, meaning “Love of Earth” in the local native language; a single vineyard estate making exceptional wines from 100% organic and biodynamic vineyard. It is located at an altitude of 950m (3117ft) above sea level, in a picture postcard setting against the backdrop of snow capped Andes mountain, in Ugarteche, Luján de Cujo, 38 kms south of Mendoza city.

Alpamanta, Certified Organic & Biodynamic Vineyard in Ugarteche, Lujan de Cujo, Mendoza, Argentina. All photographs used in this blog post are mine.

I was curious to see how “biodynamics”, an extreme form of “organic viticulture” and the next big trend in grape growing, actually worked. Was it really possible to attune farming to the spiritual forces of the cosmos in general and to lunar rhythms in particular. And all those stories about the use of cow horn manure and other “homeopathic preparations” (involving dandelion, camomile etc) used to dynamize the vineyard; was it just some irrational cult and unscientific mumbo-jumbo, or did it really work.

The visit was a revelation and added tremendously to my knowledge of Biodynamics, a wine-making practice where the vineyard is considered a self-sufficient living organism, co-existing with flora and fauna in a complimentary way.

Incidentally, it was way back in the 1920’s, that this concept started with an Austrian philosopher named Rudolph Steiner, who was against the use of chemicals in agriculture. The aim was to restore harmony between humans and the universe and keep human intervention to a minimum. However, it is only in recent years that people are taking this holistic agricultural practice seriously, as the harmful effects of chemicals are becoming apparent.

While a lot of vineyards across the world are hopping on to the sustainable wagon and converting to biodynamics including high-end wine producers like Peter Sisseck of Dominio de Pingus in Spain, Lalou Bize-Leroy of Domaine Leroy in Burgundy, Michel Chapoutier in Hermitage, DeLoach Vineyards in Sonoma County; the founder of Alpamanta, an Austrian of noble descent, Andrej Razumovsky and his partners Andre Hoffman and Jéréme Delecourt, established this boutique winery in 2005, in a virgin previously untouched site, as an organic and biodynamic project right from the start.

Which in essence means that the 35 hectares of Alpamanta estate has not been exposed to any chemicals in the form of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, commercial yeast or any other artificial ingredients. They practice soil and bug friendly cultivation using home made compost, treating the soil as a living organism.  All activities, including  cellar work, are carried on following a biodynamic calendar. There are root days (for pruning), leaf days (for watering), flower days (leaving the vineyard alone) and fruit days (for harvesting).

With Ignacio Ciancio, Commercial Manager Alpamanta, who took care of my visit.

Setting foot inside the vineyard, the first thing I noticed was an organic herb garden. I was told by Ignacio Ciancio, Commercial Manager Alpamanta Estate, that these herbs were used in a making a “compost preparation” which vitalizes the soil and makes the vines disease resistant. He then pointed to the ground which was teeming with ants. These ants were present on every inch of the vineyard walkways. Ignacio mentioned that all biodynamic vineyards will have colonies of ants and this is the first thing one should look for, if any vineyard makes claims to being biodynamic.

Herb Garden and Compost Pit at Alpamanta Estate, Mendoza Argentina. Ignacio Ciancio holding some compost to show the earthworms.

I saw sheep, horses and hens roaming freely around the property. This is done to allow them to pick off damaging worms and greens and also generate manure.

Poultry is transported to different parts of the property in a mobile hen-house . Chicken eat “cutworm’ while sheep help in weed control.

All vines are covered by a mesh to protect them against hail.IMG_3477

One of the most fascinating areas of the estate was the cellar which stored barrels full of “biodynamic preparations” used for infusing the manure with vitalizing forces to promote vine growth and prevent diseases. These are administered only on specific days in accordance with the biodynamic calendar, based on the phases of moon and its relationship with the 12 constellations. In other words, these are effective only during certain earthly and celestial rhythms.

Ignacio showing the various “biodynamic preparations” and explaining their usage.

The certified organic Alpamanta wines were a bigger revelation. Available in four varietal lines Natal (Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Malbec, all unoaked, fruity and fresh ), Estate (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Chardonnay, aged in French oak for 10 months) Reserva or Terroir (Malbec, aged in new French barrels for 18 months) and Breva (unfiltered). All wines are made using ambient yeast, very little sulphites and with minimum manipulation, right from harvest to bottling. The packaging too is eco-friendly.

IMG_6096Very elegant, complex, layered and well-balanced, they tasted nothing like the other “organic” wines, I had been previously exposed to. Some of those had left me underwhelmed, while these were simply outstanding. Which just goes to show that better farming practices result in better wines and “going green” is not just a marketing gimmick. If you want to change your perception about organic wines, look for Alpamanta. And if you happen to find yourself in Mendoza, do visit this biodynamic vineyard.

It was a fascinating and educative visit for which I am grateful to the owner Andrej Razumovsky and to my friend Georgina Fernandez Desrefano, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Argentina, India, who introduced me to Andrej and co-ordinated my programme. A big thank you to Ignacio Ciancio, who showed me around Alpamanta and other parts of Mendoza, like the breathtakingly beautiful Uco Valley.

Though I liked most of Alpamanta wines, my favorite surprisingly, was not Malbec, but the Estate Cabernet Franc.

By : Lavina Kharkwal

Alpamanta is one of the seven certified biodynamic wineries in Argentina. They can be contacted at turismo@alpamnta.comIMG_3562

SulaFest 2017: 10th edition of this Gourmet Music & Wine Festival to get bigger & better.

If there is one company that has put India firmly on the world wine tourism map, it is Rajeev Samant’s Sula Vineyards, situated in Nashik, Maharashtra. And if there is one event which has taken snobbery out of wine drinking and succeeded in attracting hordes of youngsters to this magical beverage, it is SulaFest, held every year on the first weekend of February, since 2008 in the idyllic environs of Sula Vineyards.

The 10th edition of this trendy wine, music and food extravaganza is just two days away. It promises to be its best ever, looking at the exciting line-up of 120 international and national music artists slated to play at the festival. The setup in 2017 is bigger too, as the festival is spread over three days 3rd 4th and 5th February, compared to the previous two day format.

To accommodate the large number of artists, befitting a “World Music Festival”, three stages have been constructed, a Greek style Amphitheatre, Atmasphere and a new addition, Tropical Stage. Some of the renowned artists performing at SulaFest 2017 will be Bloc Party, an indie rock band from London, Dana Ruh and the Israeli duo with a catchy name “Infected Mushroom”.

Indian artists will be out in full force on Day 1 (3rd Feb) of the fest, when homegrown talent like Indian Ocean, Nucleya, The Raghu Dixit Project will be setting the stage on fire (not literally I hope)

Music across all genres will be featured, from techno, house, electronica, indie, reggae, afro, world fusion to psychedelic trance. Along with wine, this promises to be quite a heady combination.

Complete day wise artist line-up of SulaFest 2017 on 3rd 4th & 5th Feb 2017
Complete day wise artist line-up of SulaFest 2017 on 3rd 4th & 5th Feb 2017

Talking of wine, which of course will be there in plenty, there will be grape stomping sessions since it is harvest season at the winery, winery tours and organised wine tastings. Sula sold nearly a million cases of wine in 2016 and SulaFest is a great occasion to showcase its various labels and make people understand how that bottle gets from the vineyard to the table. It is also an exposure to Nashik, Maharashtra (about four hours drive from Mumbai), India’s most important wine growing region which many term as India’s own Napa Valley.

However, wine will not be the only beverage served. There will be other spirits too like Mount Gay Rum, Asahi Beer, Cognac all imported through Sula Selections, the import arm of Sula Vineyards. For teetotallers and health freaks, cold press juices from Raw Pressery will satiate your thirst.

And there will be food. Plenty of it from popular Mumbai restaurants like Bombay Food Truck, Mainland China, Busago, Maroosh, Woodside Inn and lots more.

There is a “Tent City” that has been set up amidst the vineyards, complete with a little weekend flea market “SulaFest Bazaar”. What you can expect to enjoy here are Sunrise Yoga Sessions, SulaFest Run and Foot Massages. There will be a Tarot Card reader to give you a little peek into your future.

The three day affair promises to be a lot of fun. The romance of a vineyard setting is unparalleled as it is. Couple that with great music and food and it becomes intoxicating. You will not know till you experience it.

To book tickets (hopefully there will be some left still as last few years have been completely sold out) here is the link.

By: Lavina Kharkwal

Indian Wines Showcased at Winemakers Dinner at Pullman New Delhi Aerocity

Tristan Beau de Lomenie, the handsome and suave General Manager of Pullman New Delhi Aerocity made a telling statement while addressing the guests at “Taste of India”, a Winemakers Dinner at Pluck & Pling, the all-day fine dining restaurant at his hotel. He said, “This is not a competition but a collaboration among India’s top wine producers”.

He was referring to the winemakers from Sula, Grover Zampa, York and Charosa, who had flown down to Delhi, to present their wines at a well curated dinner at Pullman, the purpose of which was to highlight the tremendous progress made by the Indian wine industry, both in terms of quality and styles.

Tristan also made a little confession and admitted that four years ago, when he and his wife Isabel came to India, they were not very fond of Indian wine. However, over the years, he has been amazed by the improvement in the quality of Indian wines and now, not only has he become a fan, but is actively promoting them in his hotel.

This dinner was notable for several reasons. Four of India’s well known winemakers, Ajoy Shaw of Sula Vineyards, Karishma Grover of Grover Zampa, Ravi Gurnani from York and Ashok Patil from Charosa Vineyards had gathered together, taking time out from their busy schedules since it is harvest time at the wineries, to showcase their premium wines at the Pullman dinner.

While most wine lovers in Delhi are already familiar with established names like Sula, Grover Zampa and York, this was the first time that wines from Charosa (a winery located 55kms from Nashik in Maharashtra) were being presented in the capital. There has been a buzz around their Sauvignon Blanc and Reserve Tempranillo (India’s first 100% Tempranillo), and guests at the “Taste of India” dinner got a chance to try out both, along with Charosa Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The presence of Ashok Patil, chief winemaker of Charosa, who spoke a little about his winery, made it special.

The four wines from Sula Vineyards, India’s biggest and most well known wine producer commanding the largest market share, were Brut Tropicale (my current favorite among Indian sparkling wines), Sula Riesling 2016, Rasa Shiraz 2014 and a lovely Late Harvest Chenin Blanc 2016 which had a good balance between sweetness and acidity and a touch of Muscat. Ajoy Shaw, chief winemaker of Sula Vineyards revealed that Rasa got its name after the initials (Ra Sa) of the founder of Sula, Rajeev Samat. I was not aware of this and it is always good to learn something new.

Karishma Grover, chief winemaker at Grover Vineyards Ltd, presented Zampa Brut Soirée 2014 and Grover Zampa Chêne Grande Reserve 2010 along with two house labels that she has collaborated with Pullman. “Blanc by Pullman” is a Sauvignon Blanc while “Rouge by Pullman” is a blend of oak aged Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, both easy drinking styles.

Ravi Gurnani from York winery was the only person among the four, who is technically not a winemaker but takes care of sales & marketing. It is his brother Kailash, who is incharge of winemaking operations at York Winery, also situated in Nashik very close to Sula. The wines that he showcased at the dinner were York Sparkling Blanc de Blancs (100% Chenin), York Chenin Blanc 2016 and, York Arros, one of the best value for money premium Indian red wines in my opinion.

It goes to the credit of Tristan and his team of sommeliers and chefs, in particular Director Food & Beverage Vishrut Gupta and Assistant Director F&B Deepak Shettigar, that the event was a huge success.

The efforts of the sommelier of Pullman & Novotel New Delhi Aerocity, Kriti Malhotra, were recognised and praised by everyone present. Kriti is certified sommelier from Court of Master Sommeliers and it was she who had coordinated with the winemakers and persuaded them to participate. She is a passionate and dedicated sommelier who is making a mark on the wine scene and setting a great example which should encourage more and more Indian women to enter this field.

Taste of India Winemakers Dinner at Pullman New Delhi Aerocity
Taste of India Winemakers Dinner at Pullman New Delhi Aerocity

Taste of India wine dinner was also a fabulous opportunity for the chefs of Pullman to showcase “Farm-to-Table”, a concept that they so zealously advocate. In fact, quite a few ingredients used in the dishes were plucked from their in-house organic garden. No surprise that the Cafe is called “Pluck”. The miniature Chef’s Garden created for the dinner, complete with root vegetables which guests had to dig out from faux soil and the different types of fruit and vegetable caviar, came in for a lot of appreciation. There were some hits and misses in terms of wine and food pairing, but there is always an inherent risk while attempting something unconventional.

Tristan Beau de Lomenie and his team need to be applauded for promoting both the “Farm-to-Table” concept and Indian Wines at Pullman & Novotel New Delhi Aerocity.

The Wines from Sula, Grover Zampa, York and Charosa ; Chef's Garden at Pluck; Caviar and Dessert
The Wines from Sula, Grover Zampa, York and Charosa ; Chef’s Garden at Pluck; Caviar and Dessert

Tristan’s concluding words at the “Taste of India” wine dinner were that Indian wines are becoming a force to reckon with and can now complete with the best in the New World. Coming from a Frenchman whose wife Isabel, owns a vineyard in Barsac Bordauex, this is quite an endorsement.

By : Lavina Kharkwal



K3 Alfresco at JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity : A Perfect Winter Rendezvous

Some of my fondest memories of winter are centred around food. Sitting around a bonfire eating peanuts and gajjak in Jammu during Lohri; driving for masala tea and hot pakoras to a road side tea stall in Rajpur from our house in Dehradun; plucking fresh spinach and mustard from our kitchen garden in Kaka Nagar, New Delhi, cooking it over an open fire and eating it along with home-made “makki rotis”.

Countless nostalgic food moments like these, associated with places where I have lived. Somehow I feel less guilty about over-eating at this time of the year. The weight gain that invariably happens, gets camouflaged by layers of clothing, which is a blessing.

During winters, the urge for a barbecue usually takes me to a nearby “dhaba”, or to Old Delhi, where you can stand around numerous roadside makeshift charcoal grills, and devour delicious kebabs and skewered meats.

But there are times, when I really yearn for a nice juicy lamb chop, paired with a robust red wine or some top quality grilled fish. For this, however, I head to a fine dining restaurant, preferably having outdoor seating, as this kind of food is best enjoyed when it is fresh off the grill, and cooked right in front of you.

When I read that K3, the all-day dining at JW Marriott, Aerocity New Delhi, had added an outdoor extension called K3 Alfresco serving barbecues and grilled dishes, it seemed like the perfect solution for my yearnings and I decided to check it out.

Luckily Delhi has had an unusually mild winter this year. So the thought of sitting outdoors did not seen very daunting.

K3, with its elaborate menu and popular Sunday brunches has already established its reputation as one of the best fine dining destinations in Delhi -NCR. I was not disappointed with the new addition, K3 Alfresco, either.

K3 Alfresco at JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity
K3 Alfresco at JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity

The menu at K3 Alfresco is limited since it is predominantly about grills. Prawns, Scallops, Goat Cheese Tart and something called Provolone Brulee are offered as the appetizers. For the mains the choice is wider and the several options include Lobster, Fish (Sea Bass, Black Cod, John Dory), New Zealand Lamb Chops, Pork Chops & Chicken Breast. Vegetarians can choose between Charred Polenta and Wild Mushroom & Asparagus Gougère.

There is a wide variety of sauces to go with the mains, Béarnaise, Caper Beurre Blanc, Red Wine Jus, Pepper, Mushroom etc. Plenty of interesting sides too.

I ordered Grilled Jumbo Prawns, Goat Cheese Tart (absolutely delicious and must try) among the appetisers and Sea Bass & New Zealand Lamb Chops from the mains. The wine I chose with the seafood was Dr Loosen 2013 Riesling and with the lamb chops it was Frescobaldi Pater Sangiovese, both by the glass. The deal here is that if you order one main dish ( Rs 1500-3500) from the grill; the soup, sides and a pre-plated dessert come free of cost.

Grilled Sea Bass; Grilled Prawns; New Zealand Lamb Chops, Goat Cheese Tart, Dr Loosen Riesling, Dessert Platter with Creme Brulee & Valrhona Chocolate Mousse.
Grilled Sea Bass; Grilled Prawns; New Zealand Lamb Chops, Goat Cheese Tart, Dr Loosen Riesling, Dessert Platter with Creme Brulee & Valrhona Chocolate Mousse. All food pics are mine except the Sea Bass

Now Sea Bass is a delicate fish which requires minimal cooking. Executive Chef Vivek Bhatt and Executive Sous Chef Ishika Konar had respected that. The fish presented to me was white, soft, flakey and just melted in the mouth.

The Prawns were a wee bit over but Chef Ishika nailed the lamb chops. I had asked them to be done medium and this is how I got them, succulent with the juices intact. The cooking techniques of the chefs was spot on. They understood the ingredients and respected them.

Chef Ishika Konar, Executive Sous Chef, JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity. She specialises in Mediterranean, German, & Mexican Cuisine and her forte is western hot kitchen & garde manger.
Chef Ishika Konar, Executive Sous Chef, JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity. She specialises in Mediterranean, German, & Mexican Cuisine and her forte is western hot kitchen & garde manger.

One reason why I like going to K3 is the well thought out wine list and some great offers by the glass. Plus there is Director Beverages, Ankur Chawla, one of India’s best sommeliers, whose advice can always be sought, when in doubt about which wine to pair with your meal.

K3 Alfresco is a dinner only, season bound offer (during winters till mid-Feb). I loved the romantic ambience. It seems like a perfect place to take your date on a cold winter evening.

In case you need additional heating, there are enough tower heaters which don’t let you feel the chill, even though you are seated in the open.

So if you are looking for a special evening to try out some delicious grills, you know where to head to.

By : Lavina Kharkwal

Clos Rougeard : Drinking a Loire Valley Legend in Hong Kong.

Le Quinze Vins in Wan Chai Hong Kong looked like any other wine bar from outside, till I entered and saw an entire wall lined up with vintages from hallowed French estates. The kind that you bow down and pay homage to.

Le Quinze Vins, a French Wine Bar in Wan Chai Hong Kong
Le Quinze Vins, a French Wine Bar in Wan Chai Hong Kong

This is where I was meeting Gordon Rodrigues, a Hong Kong based banker, wine aficionado and an avid wine collector, on a recent visit to Hong Kong.

Gordon was a facebook friend whom I had known for over a year. This was the first time we were meeting in person.

The world of wine has connected me with some wonderful people across the world. There is always someone in every city willing to share a glass or a bottle and talk about their wine journey. Cultural barriers are transcended, views aired and often an everlasting friendship is formed over wine.

Gordon Rodrigues, a Hong Kong based banker who introduced me to a cult wine from Loire Valley.
Gordon Rodrigues, a Hong Kong based banker who introduced me to a legendary wine estate from Loire Valley.

What Gordon had chosen for me that evening, was a Clos Rougeard “Brézé 2008”, a single vineyard Chenin Blanc from the legendary wine estate, Clos Rougeard, in Saumur region of Loire Valley, France.

Clos Rougeard Saumur Blanc Breze 2008
Clos Rougeard Saumur Blanc Breze 2008

This was the first time I was trying out wine from this revered, though somewhat low profile estate, famous for its “cult” Cabernet Franc.

To say that Clos Rougeard is to Loire what Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC) is to Burgundy, will not be an exaggeration.

The estate produces three red wines Le Bourg, Les Poyeux and Le Clos, all from 100% Cabernet Franc, under the appellation label Saumur Champigny.

According to some, it is the finest expression of Cabernet Franc in the world and some vintages of Le Bourg, the leading cuvée of Clos Rougeard, fetch a higher price than Bordeaux classified growths such as Cos d’Estournel and Palmer.

Ever since the death of Charly Foucault, the eighth generation co-owner of Cos Rougeard, in December last year, the price of these wines has shot up even more.

Since production is limited to only 2500 cases a year, the wines get sold out very quickly and are hard to find.

Latest reports suggest that Clos Rougeard has been sold to Martin Bouygues and his brother Olivier, owners of Chateau Montrose in Bordeaux.

Clos Rougeard wines are truly artisanal in every sense and pioneers of organic viticulture (wines produced sans pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilisers) in the region.

The brothers Charly & Nady Foucault continued their father’s tradition of keeping vinification chemical free and made wines the way they should be made, with minimal oenological intervention. Wines are produced from low-yields, using wild natural yeasts and bottled without filtration.

More and more vintners are now turning towards organic viticulture, but Clos Rouegard has always been making wines in this manner without a drop of chemicals.

Saumur Blanc “Brézé” is a rare white wine made from 100% Chenin Blanc from hundred year old vines grown in just a one hectare plot. Brézé is acknowledged as the best terroir in Saumur appellation for Chenin Blanc, a celebrated white grape of Loire Valley.

Clos Rougeard Saumur Blanc Breze 2008
Clos Rougeard Saumur Blanc Breze 2008

High in acidity and potentially long living, this is a white wine that can be aged for a long time. It is a “collector’s item” like the Cabernet Francs from Clos Rougeard and you are unlikely to find it on the wine list of restaurants, even in France.

Long and slow élevage (18-24 months) in cold Tuffeau cellars (local limestone of the Loire Valley) helps in adding complexity. 50% of the wine is aged in new barrique. This gives the wine great depth, length and richness.

Light gold in appearance with a dry sherry like nutty oxidative intensity, this precise, deeply perfumed and elegant Chenin Blanc with superb freshness and lively acidity, completely enveloped my senses. The wine expressed the complexity of the soil, such was its purity.

Reminding me slightly of a Hermitage Blanc, but with more richness, denser minerality and deeper concentration, the Clos Rougeard Saumur Brézé 2008 is one wine I will not forget in a hurry.

With Gordon Rodrigues at Le Quinze Vins in Wan Chai Hong Kong enjoying a cult Chenin Blanc from Loire Valley
With Gordon Rodrigues at Le Quinze Vins in Wan Chai Hong Kong enjoying a rare Chenin Blanc from Loire Valley

By : Lavina Kharkwal