Sam Bhatia: Making French Wine for the Indian at Heart

Sam Bhatia
Sam Bhatia, founder of Sufi Wines, is based in New York

For almost two decades, Sam Bhatia travelled extensively around the world as a marketing professional in Continental/United Airlines. No matter where he was, one question would mostly come up at dinner about wine, particularly about pairing wine with different foods.

“As an aficionado of spicy cuisine, I was never quite satisfied with the wines I was presented to accompany Indian dishes. And so I decided to do a little research on the subject,” says the Indian-origin American who has lived in the US since 1976. With the help of friends and professionals in both the cultural and wine sectors, he tasted a multitude of different varietals, but still did not find what he was looking for.

Bhatia then decided to create such a wine himself, and called it Mirza Ghalib. He put together a team of passionate wine lovers led by Frédéric-Jean Hoguet, wine expert and member of the prestigious Académie du vin de Paris. Having decided to make their wine in France, known for some of the best wines in the world, they zoomed in on a region called Pays d’Oc in the southern part of the country.

“We chose this region for the soil, climate and terrain. The Pays d’Oc boasts a rich and natural combination of steep slopes, hilly peaks, vineyards, garrigue vegetation and the sea,” explains Bhatia. The Pays d’Oc territory is embraced by its Mediterranean climate that comfortably enfolds the vines with its dry and windswept soils. As grapes embrace the land they grow in, the grape varieties express themselves differently depending on the climate, exposure, relief and soils, he explains.

Winery in Pays d'Oc
 Pays d’Oc’s patchwork of wine-growing areas creates a unique expression of grape varieties.

“Once we had a blend that worked well, we did extensive tastings with industry friends and family to finalise the blend that everyone selected in a blind tasting,” recalls Bhatia, who has lived in New York for the past decade. And thus, Mirza Ghalib was born in 2013 under the brand name Sufi Wines. “It complements Indian food’s spicy and complex flavours in two ways: first, the wine’s acidity boosts the layers of flavours in a dish while softening its extremes, whether of body, richness, fattiness or spicy heat. Second, the wine’s fruitiness or sweetness tones down spicy heat, letting the other flavours in the dish shine,” says the 50-year-old, who studied in a British school and graduated from St. Peters University, New Jersey.

The same year, Michelin-star chef Hemant Mathur started serving Bhatia’s wine at his award-winning restaurant Tulsi. When Mathur became the owner and executive chef of Fine Indian Dining, he ensured that Sufi Wines were served in all restaurants that were run by the group. The wines quickly went on to win awards in their respective categories.

Amrita100315-117Their signature Mirza Ghalib Red Blend 2014 was the winner of the 2013, 2014 New York World Wine & Spirits Championship. It was also a 2016 Gold Medal winner by the Beverage Tasting Institute and a Best Buy with 92 points. The Red Blend offers abundant notes of soft herbs, spices and hints of black pepper. “This fruity, up-front luscious blend could easily compete with some of the better varietals in this vintage,” says Bhatia, describing the velvety layers of blackberry and black cherry flavours in the smooth wine. According to him, the blend brings out the spicy and rich flavours in North and South Indian vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine, such as lentils (daal makhani), curries (chicken tikka masala), assorted kebabs and biryanis.

Amrita100315-115The second wine, Mirza Ghalib Viogner 2014, is what Bhatia describes as “a perfect patio sipper”. This award-winning wine begins with fresh and fruity aroma of yellow apple, ginger, and honeydew. Tasting reveals a dry-with-a-medium-finish, easy-to-drink wine with moderate acidity. The finish is full of ripe apples and pears that add interest. “This one will be particularly good with spicy cuisine, shellfish or with the summer heat,” advises Bhatia. The viognier grape also complements lighter vegetarian fare such as tikkas, pakoras and samosas, he says.

The third wine, Mirza Ghalib Rosé 2014 of Syrah is rich on the nose with pale strawberry, papaya, pomegranate and dusty red apples. The palate shows a more intense mouthful of white and red rose blossom, grilled strawberries, tart red plum skin and a hint of heirloom tomatoes. Rich and velvety in texture, the wine finishes with nutmeg and fresh pepper leaf intertwined with racy acidity that balances it out. The rosé is great with tandoori food (made in the Indian clay oven), tikkas and kebabs. “These wines are specially designed to find the perfect balance of tastes with these Indian dishes,” affirms Bhatia.

Today the company produces over 5,000 cases a year and their wines are available at some of the finest restaurants in Washington DC, Virginia, Maryland, and Minnesota. They are currently being served in 46 restaurants between New York and New Jersey, including some of the most highly awarded restaurants like Awadh, Moti Mahal Delux, Tulsi, Tamarind Tribeca and Junoon.

“The clientele we cater to is the ‘global’ individual. New Yorkers love wine. Our wines are meant to take you on a spicy culinary journey and so far all varieties have been very well-received,” says Bhatia, who plans to launch in India this year. “With the currency demonetisation, we had to hold off launching, but we are planning very diligently to launch in 2017.” He is also working on a new California wine called Made in Cali. “It’s a beautiful blend, made with love,” he says.

MIRZA Ghalib 2013Bhatia, who has worked in the US Air Force and at the Pentagon in Washington DC, is aware of the changing dynamics of demography and the needs of the digital generation: “The next big thing is already here – organic, bio-dynamic, new world, old style wine.” According to him, the youth has already embraced wine through exposure to the Internet, where apps like Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook help create awareness.

“They want to try new wines and if they like it, they share it. Your wine becomes an instant star,” he says, adding “Ten or fifteen years ago, it was impossible to find a wine or purchase a wine you like with the click of a button. The Internet has brought wine appreciation to a human level. The snobbery has almost vanished from the wine world.” That’s good news for wine mavericks like Bhatia.

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