Liam Steevenson is from the South West of England, and he is an expert on wine. Steevenson is more than qualified to host tonight’s wine-tasting event, for not only does he run a wine business in Devon which sells to hotels and restaurants, but he also makes his own wine in France. But more on that later.
His job as a master of wine is to educate and enthuse, which he certainly excels at as he informs his audience about the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that the attendees at the British High Commission are sampling this evening. The guests begin with the white wine, which is poured by students from the IHM school, which is widely regarded as the top hotel management institute in the country.
Chardonnay was first made in Burgundy, France. As a variety of grape which can be grown practically anywhere, there are huge variations in the quality of Chardonnays on the market. Steevenson states that this New Zealand variant is the closest to the Burgundy original as, “the cold nights help the grapes maintain acidity, which brings great balance to the wine.” Compared to other white wines, the thicker grape skins make the wine look more golden in colour compared to other whites, such as Sauvignon Blanc.
The white wine is a big hit amongst the ladies present this evening. Henrietta, who is married to Bruce Bucknell, British deputy high commissioner, tells me that with the humid climate of Calcutta, a crisp white wine like this is, “exactly what you need”.
As the guests sample the Chardonnay, Steevenson reveals what is so exciting about the wine industry in India. Whilst growth has been in decline for the last few years in other wine producing and consuming nations, here in India the wine industry is seeing 25% year-on-year growth. It certainly seems like a market that is ripe for investing in.
The next wine up for tasting is a 2011 vintage Pinot Noir, which also had its beginnings in Burgundy. Wine producers have tried to plant it in South Africa and California, but were more successful in Tasmania and New Zealand. The climate makes it a vibrant, juicy and quite fragrant wine, which takes on an earthy, spicy flavour as it ages. This grape is a “tricky variety”, Steevenson tells us, because the “thin skins mean there are high tannin levels”. He goes on to explain the effect tannins – which are a bitter-tasting organic substance found in grapes – have on wine. “When red wine sits in the bottle, over time the tannins get bigger, and can no longer fit through the pores in your tongue, which makes it smoother.”
Steevenson spoke a little bit about what food to pair this wine with, and said that because people here in Calcutta are used to spice in a way us Brits are not, “red wine feels like an obvious companion to spicy food if the red is ripe and juicy like this Pinot Noir”.
Not only is he a wine-buff, but Steevenson is also a big supporter of the rugby team, Jungle Crows. Paul Gray, one of the founders of the grassroots organisation, is in attendance this evening. Liam met Paul in a bar, which he jokes is hardly surprising. Somehow, the morning after that he found himself on the Maidan at 6am watching the kids training. He has supported Paul’s work ever since.
Which brings us on to their collaboration on an exciting new project. Steevenson has been producing wine in France for the last five years, and his output has increased from two barrels to twenty-four barrels a year, which means he now has the demand to go to the bank for a loan to buy his own vineyard. This is exciting news for fans of wine in Calcutta, as talks are underway to bring about the production of a Jungle Crows branded wine, which will invite IHM students like those present this evening to be a part of the blending process.
After the announcement of their partnership, Paul Gray thanks Steevenson for his involvement with the club, telling the audience that the wine they make will be, “something a little bit different that you’ll all like, it will be part of Calcutta’s spirit.”