When Sovna Puri, fresh out of hotel school, went to France to intern at a Relais & Châteaux property in 2003, she didn’t realise it would be the start of a lifelong love affair with wine. The head, tastings and training and general manager, sales and marketing of Sula Wines recalls observing the sommelier there: a “brilliant man with a passion for wine” and being awed by the hotel’s long, complex wine list. She was hooked. It would be a life with wine for her, she decided.
A move thereafter to Michelin-star Indian restaurant, Benares in London sealed the deal. Those were days when Indian food was accompanied with beer and the restaurant had a meagre wine list. “My fellow sommelier, an Italian and I decided to create a six-course wine-paired tasting menu,” she recalls. It was a huge hit. People started ordering their favourites, for instance fish moilee with a Martinborough Pinot Noir from New Zealand, an unusual combination. For Puri, it was exciting to see the Indian food/wine story taking off. A regular was Sula’s Rajeev Samant (Sula was the only Indian wine listed) who offered Puri a job back in India. “I had no intentions of moving. Wine drinking was virtually non-existent in India. But it sounded like a good change and I agreed,” she says. Puri’s been with Sula since. “It’s been an interesting ride in India, so different from the Western attitude towards wine,” she tells me, “Indians first started drinking wine for health reasons or because it was the ‘in’ thing. Today, there are many who want to genuinely understand and learn.”
Puri travels around India conducting wine appreciation sessions and teaching the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Levels 1 & 2 mostly to those in the hotel biz, but nowadays, to an increasing number of non-trade folk, driven by simple curiosity. “In a Punjab Tier 2 city known for its whisky drinking tradition, I got 99 per cent attendance recently: a wow moment for me,” she says. Nonetheless, the subject of wine remains a formidable one and there are many misconceptions, which can be cleared through education alone. Some common ones? “That red wine should be served at room temperature in India. No. Room temperature means Europe’s; red wine should be served at 16 degrees, not more. Also, because of our cheap port wine tradition, it’s widely assumed that red wine is sweet.” There’s increasing curiosity about wine pairing with Indian food, a subject that’s seeing much myth-busting lately. I asked Puri about her favourite pairings. “The Sula Riesling with a mildly spiced chicken curry. And one of my favourites from our import portfolio: Cono Sur Chardonnay from Chile with a creamy butter chicken,” she recommends.
Her words of wisdom to learners, like the state-level cricketer who enjoys collecting wine and wanted to learn more: “Don’t get intimidated – it’s not rocket science. Be open minded, taste different wines until you find what you like. There’s a wine out there for everyone.”