A glass of wine with your samosa?

BANGALORE — Ever thought that a chicken tikka could be paired with a rose, or a palak paneer (cottage cheese in spinach) with a sauvignon blanc?

Aparna Bhagwat, 26, an architect who works at a Bangalore-based design firm, absolutely thinks so. So do her girlfriends.

In a country where drinking used to be taboo for women, and socializing meant sitting around watching the men get smashed, record numbers of urban women are taking to wine drinking, making it socially acceptable and even fashionable.

“Wine drinking is classy,” said Bhagwat, who has acquired a taste for red wine in the past year. She has enrolled herself in a wine appreciation course.

As Indian women increasingly become independent, financially and otherwise, and begin asserting their spending power, wine drinking is becoming the rage.

Women constitute a big chunk of the growing market, said Abhay Kewadkar, chief winemaker and head of business at United Spirits, which is setting up India’s largest winery, United Vintners. “The sophisticated, cultured appeal of wine drinking is converting many,” he said.

United Vintners, part-owned by India’s flamboyant liquor baron Vijay Mallya, will also import and promote wine drinking in India.

The fast-paced Indian economic growth of recent years has brought about many social changes.

Bhagwat is single and lives in Bangalore. On a recent trip to her parents’ home in the conservative Chhattisgarh in central India, she sipped wine while her father drank scotch and soda. Her mother, she recounts, looked on silently. “Wine is the only drink I can have without offending the family elders,” she said.

The ubiquitous “Wine shop” signage on Indian streets is a misnomer for stores that stock every type of alcohol but wine. That wine drinking is a recent Indian phenomenon was evident when the travel editor of London’s Financial Times was at a cocktail party in a New Delhi hotel last year.

Upon asking which wine he had just been served, a member of the waitstaff blithely responded, “Red wine, sir.”

Gaffes are common among the new wine drinkers, but most are learning quickly.

When Bhagwat invited friends over recently, she served dal-roti (lentils and flat bread) with wine. When she visits friends, she sometimes brings wine as a gift.

Still, in a country where the upper crust loves scotch and the masses enjoy cheap rum with cola, wine consumption is still small.

Only some 1.5 million cases (12 bottles to a case) of wines were sold last year, according to Kewadkar. That amounts to 10 milliliters per capita consumption compared with 50 liters per capita in Europe and 17 liters in the United States.

But domestic wine producers and foreign wineries are heady about future prospects — the market is growing more than 20 percent a  year and experts forecast tenfold growth over the next decade.

As newbie drinkers panic over how to hold a wine glass or whether to serve the chardonnay chilled, wine clubs are sprouting in Indian cities, helping dispel some of the snobbery.

In Bangalore, the local club is run by an all-female team and its membership tilts heavily toward women.

Also pumping up the popularity of wines are fine dining restaurants, such as Bon South in Bangalore’s hip Koramangala neighborhood. Dispelling old notions that wines do not complement Indian cuisine, the restaurant offers fiery south Indian food paired with wines.

A surefire sign of the growing popularity of wine-drinking is the fact that supermarket shelves in bigger Indian cities now stock wines from as far as Bordeaux, California and Cape Town, as well as a growing range of Indian wines from companies such as Kewadkar’s.

High tariffs and distribution challenges have long hindered wine sales. Yet, while wines didn't make it into the homes of the uber-rich and onto wine lists of luxury hotels, they now swirl inside the long-stemmed glasses of many middle-class women.

So, while the masses scoff at wine as lacking the alcohol “kick” of whiskey, rum or vodka, Indian women like Bhagwat are learning to enjoy their butter chicken with a glass of rose, and their lamb kebabs with a riesling.

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