Sniffing Out The Elusive Local Wines Of Northeast India
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Mulled wine and mince pie may be the perfect European-style Christmas indulgence, but a bowl of tarty, straw-coloured rice wine can be your all-season delight. The northeast of India is known for its assorted variety of delicious fruit wines made from black cherry, meyna laxiflora, dragon fruit and more. Local vintners, however, also raise a toast to the elusive rice brews. Unlike the more popular rice beer, wine made from starchy grain takes years to mature. Speaking of the latest, the judima rice wine brewed by the Dimasa tribe in Assam’s Dima Hasao district recently won the coveted geographical indication (GI) tag.

Winemaking Is More Art Than Science

The basic winemaking technique involves fermentation, adding yeast, mixing sugar in the right proportion, filtration and storage. Winemaking is more of an art than science and the different ethnic groups of the region have been practising it for ages now. 

Winemaking can sometimes be a little tedious as it demands expertise and patience. According to wine enthusiasts, cultured yeasts play the most important role in the process. Most ethnic groups in the region use strains of ‘good’ yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae) or native yeasts for winemaking. Many vintners employ another method called malolactic fermentation (MLF), in which the sour-tasting malic acid is converted into softer-tasting lactic acid. MLF tones down the wine, making it more mellow and delicious.

Proper storage is essential for winemaking and the use of oak barrels can have a profound impact on the final product. During the preservation period, the wood comes in contact with the wine, adding colour, flavour and texture to it. If not barrels in cellars, free-floating oak chips can be introduced to the wine while being fermented.

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Although preservation is crucial, there are times when it becomes difficult to retain the quality of wine during the summer season. Attics in people’s homes often come in handy to store wine during the warm months. Maintaining hygiene forms an integral part of the winemaking process. While it is important to follow the scientific norms when preparing wine at home, indigenous brewers also make sure that they do it under aseptic conditions as even a little slackness may spoil the taste of the product. Although sweet wine is a universal favourite and calls for celebration and frolic, many also prefer the dry wine which has a more pungent taste.

This is similar to the story of Goa’s port wine, which is a favourite among the local people as well as travellers, specifically for its sweet taste and vibrant colour. Although France, Italy, Germany and Portugal are counted among the top wine-producing nations of the world, the northeastern states of India have something special to offer – a unique blend of wines and warm hospitality.

A Mélange Of Flavours To Tease Your Palate

 Often compared with the famed saké of Japan, ruhi and khaaz varieties prepared by the Ahoms in Assam are said to be more delicious and smooth. The variety of wine that the Bodo community prepares is usually sweeter than the others of its kind. Although different kinds of saul (rice) can be used to make wine, the one produced from bora rice is usually preferred in Assam. When rice is smoked before being kept to ferment, the final product is called pura apong. The Nishi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh is popular for brewing the best-quality apong, while the Mising people of Assam make both kola and boga apong. This is also a traditional drink of the Adi tribe in Arunachal. Judima, on the other hand, is a slightly reddish sweet drink with a mellow fragrance. It is made from three different types of rice – bora, the everyday rice and bairing.

Other varieties of wine produced in the region include those made from marwa (millet), in which the grain is roasted to get a rich taste and colour. This is often described as one of the best wines in the world. The locally-brewed Naga rice wine is famous for its distinctive fruity smell. Zutho looks similar to southern India’s palm wine (or toddy).

Fruits are abundantly found in the Northeast, with grapes, cherries, pineapples, guavas, jackfruits, blackberries, oranges, pears and peaches being winemakers’ top choices. Local vintners also participate in wine festivals throughout the year that attract hordes of customers and wine lovers. Indigenous winemaking holds the potential to boost local economy by promoting fruit growers, create job opportunities for the youth and even promote tourism in the region.

One may also be keen to know that even edible flowers are used to produce alcoholic beverages, with sapid wines made from rose petals, dandelion and jasmine flowers. And if that’s not enough, there is even betel leaf wine on offer. The word wine often instils a feeling of richness in colour and interestingly the drink is available in hues like red, white, rosé (pinkish), burgundy, orange, tawny and more.

Raising A Toast To Good Health

As we talk about home-made brews, their health benefits also deserve a mention here. Wine is said to be good for the heart mainly because of the presence of polyphenols. Together with promoting cardiovascular health, wine also helps to remove bad cholesterol. The luxury drink, more importantly herbal wine, also has a long history of curing several ailments. 

Research reveals that more than 5,000 years ago, Egyptians turned wine into medicine by adding herbs to cure diseases and boost health. As many as 60 different types of herbs are used in wine making, which, in turn, help to increase longevity and quality of life.