The Man With Wine In His Veins: Count John Umberto Salvi MW

 “Dance and sing, we are eternal; Let us still be mad with drinking: ‘Tis a madness less infernal than the madness caused by thinking.”

If we believe the Scottish poet John Davidson, wine and Count John Umberto Salvi ought to go quite well together. John has a staggering depth of knowledge about Bordeaux and the world of wine. And why not? He has lived for over 40 years in Bordeaux – the Mecca of red wine – and has spent most of his 80 years around wine as a shipper, négociant, winemaker, and professional taster. Even today, the English master of wine works to maintain the purity and perfection in each bottle. John, who was in Hyderabad recently for the annual International Wine and Food Experience hosted by Taj Krishna, shares some of his great knowledge with us.

You’re truly focused on creating and appreciating a refined quality of wine. How did you first become interested in winemaking?

I grew up in wine, literally. My passion for wine was born with my birth (laughs). It is a passion that I have in my DNA. My ancestors were from a small village in Italy. It was a family of artists, sculptors, and painters, and my grandfather was a famous opera singer. However, when he went to London for his tour he fell in love with an Englishwoman and decided to stay back there. Then my father became a wine merchant in London, which helped me take an interest in wine. When I was young, my father spoke of wine at home. That advantage helped me decide to go to France to work for my father’s friend in 1955.

What do you enjoy most about wines and the processes that goes into creating the final product?

The final product in itself (laughs.) Wine is an artistic work of modern-day alchemy. The study involves right from fermentation methods to geographical influence, climatic influence, soil types, historical background, and thesis on predicting future trends. Every stage of the manufacturing plays a part towards the final smell, texture, taste, and pricing.
What does it take to be a good wine taster?

It takes one who is extremely passionate and has a greater understanding of the history of the grape, the wine, the appellation the wine came from, as well as the chemistry behind things.

What distinguishes a good wine from a great wine?

There are various elements that distinguish a good wine from a great wine. Making a great wine requires exquisite attention, starting from colour, harmony, intensity, tannin structure, and length. It all has to do with weather, too – from the time the grapes start growing to the time they’re picked. If the weather throughout the growing process is ideal and not too extreme, it’s going to be a great wine.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in winemaking since you got started?

The climate. It’s the one thing we don’t have any control over throughout the process, including growing the grapes.

What are you seeing being done here in India to create greater interest in Bordeaux?

I believe people have ignited a deeper passion for Bordeaux. There is certainly an increased interest in the wines here, too. For instance, at the event we had at Taj Falaknuma, people were passionate about drinking wine; they have immense knowledge about how they are supposed to taste, their classifications, what their main characteristics are, and how to compare them to other wines.

Talk to us about food and wine pairing – is this important to you?

Oh, yes! The marriage of food and wine without mysticism or snobbery is extremely important for me. It certainly brings out the best in any dining experience.

What are some of your favourite food and wine pairings for summer?

Wine is perfect for pairing with heartier dishes such as bacon, grilled or roasted meats, and aged cheeses. This summer, you can try with biryani or any other Indian curry that will need to have richer, stronger wines that bolster the spices’ effects.

It must be satisfying to produce a wine and know you have been involved from the grape to the bottle. So what’s your winemaking philosophy; what are you trying to achieve with your wines?

A purist, origin-conscious, quality without compromise, and modern in the sense of back to the roots is what I like. I like wines that enhance a meal, and that people enjoy.

– as told to Anisha
Pic courtesy: Srihari