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Hi-tech labels, wine from Roman times and India travels

Alessandro Vallecchi, marketing director for Allegrini, best known for their big wines Amarone and La Poja, has an alternate life. In that he’s, well, a tour guide — specialising in India travel, bringing groups of European travellers several times a year to Varanasi, and Rajasthan, Delhi and Tamil Nadu and other such places that he says he is “very comfortable with” but which often throw off his fellow travelers.

“Most people”, he says, “come with pre-conceived ideas of India. They usually either expect everything and everyone to be spiritual, or everything to be horrendous, people dying on the streets and the like.” Indeed, there are very few first-time travelers who are ready to embrace the country and its culture in its entirety. “They try to reason and rationalize. They will ask ‘but why don’t they do this?’” he says, presumably comments on the infrastructure and its lack in the country and the way in which our sea of humanity often lives on very little. But Vallecchi realizes that India is a complicated land where simplistic answers are hardly possible. “I always tell them that there is no use rationalizing, this is a country that has existed for 5,000 years and some things happen because they have always happened,” he adds. Now, that’s a very Indian way of thinking.

The reason for such a long introduction of this gentleman — apart from the fact that this is a travel blog trying to make sense of this complex land — is because I met him recently at Travertino, at the Oberoi, New Delhi. (That’s a rather fine, luxe and therefore expensive Italian restaurant offering food, wine and service matching the best establishments in Europe.) Vallecchi was there as part of what is probably his annual excursion to promote his company’s wines in a market that is as yet too insignificant in terns of numbers to matter but huge in terms of significance. India’s one billion and rising middle class have become shinning beacons of hope for everyone from French conglomerates to Australian wineries hoping to convert Scotch-loving colonialists to wine-drinking hipsters. The truth about this market is every bit as complex as this country.

Nevertheless, to come back to our subject, Allegrini, they are introducing two new labels in India, including Palazo della Torres, from the clay site by the same name that the family owns outside Valpolicella (the “valley of cellars” in Veneto) where it has been based since at least the 17th century. The wine, uniquely suited to the Indian palate, as well as to the flavourful food of most of the country, is a red and made at least partly in the Amarone style. Here, local varietals like Corvina, Rondinella and Sangiovese come together and the wine is structured using, in part, the ripasso method. One third of the grapes are picked and left to dry until December, when the wine produced from these is blended into the rest. The result is a more structured wine, sweeter than what you’d expect and suited to the cuisines of India, are so different from simpler, cleaner European flavours where just one ingredient is usually highlighted.

The marketing director that he is has an interesting trick up his sleeve to make us take further interest in this wine: in its label to be more precise. The company has introduced some hi-tech labels that can be “read” only by an “echo player”. This is a torch-like device which throws out a laser beam on to the (naturally authentic) label. A special ink with which the label has been encoded works its way mysteriously to allow us to listen to recordings (in different languages) explaining the wine and the history of the family-owned house. A gimmick? Perhaps. But it’s cool. The company’s reasoning is that they will provide this technology to retail shops keeping sufficient quantities of their bottles so that customers can first-hand understand what the wine is all about.

At Travertino, with our charming, very proper maitre-d in place, a CD player is hardly needed to explain the wine to us. Yet, who knows what will catch the fancy of the market place?

The reason for sitting through the long lunch (and talk) – we were just two jurnos present, with motives to show up including either a free afternoon or sufficient enthusiasm for Italian wines, you be the judge – was because I am a devoted fan of the Amarone. So, of course, I can hardly end this post without a lecture on that.

A style of making wine that can be traced back to the Romans when they invaded Italy, this is a big wine from Valpolicella, the foothills of the Alps in Italy’s north. And it is big equally for its powerful aromas, sweetness (though no sugar is added) and structure as for its higher alcohol content.

According to Vallecchi, the wines of northern Italy could not really have appealed to the Romans, whose cuisine was very spicy and flavourful and thus would have overpowered most of the mild, crisp whites that we associate with the northern climes. Because rainfall in the region is a little earlier than elsewhere and before the grapes have had time to mature by then, they were apparently picked a little early and then allowed to dry—not quite to raisins, but enough to concentrate all the sugar and flavours—indoors before being made into wine. The resulting bouquets were no doubt satisfactory to the Romans.

However, it was apparently only in mid-20th century that a blend from local Corvina, Rondinella and Sangiovese was processed in this fashion, giving us the Amarone. The wine has performed well over the years and made a reputation not just for the Aligrinis but others as well.

The Masi Amarone has been rated very highly, for instance. And earlier this year, when I was in Verona, Veneto’s capital, I had a chance to meet Serego Aligheri whose vineyards go into the Masi wines. Apparently a direct descendant of the poet Dante, Aligheri still lives in a Valpolicella villa, whose earliest parts go back to the time of the Divine Poet’s son, who first bought a piece of land here and married into a local, aristocratic family. “If you read his poetry, you realize that some descriptions of hell and (earth?) are indeed from the region,” says Vallecchi. But that would be another travel story.

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