Indian Winemakers: Grape Expectations

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Indian winemakers are getting smarter and stricter about quality

SANKET GAWAND INSPECTS his red wine as though he suspects it might be a counterfeit. He examines the fluid against the light; he crams his nose into it like a giant anteater pushing its snout down a termite mound; he twirls it, again and again, somewhat like a lama having a go at his prayer wheel. It is a routine he knows well. Smell, swirl, sip. But it does not appear to be something he dislikes doing.

Gawand is Vallonne Vineyard’s winemaker. A lean 30-something man with a large full beard, he is conducting a tasting session of his wines in the vineyard’s chilly underground cellar. Across the table, amid a room full of monstrous steel barrels that hold fermenting wines, a gaggle of excited visitors is following his every step. He goes about his business with an unsmiling countenance, as though he would much prefer the companionship of the vines outside than of the people here.

Now he is taking a sip, placing an arm on his hip, eyes fixed somewhere above as though recalling a painful memory. Through puckered lips, he begins to loudly suck in air. The wine is now swishing and splashing noisily in the caverns of his mouth, somewhat like a mouthwash being gargled. His companions across are following him, tittering and giggling, slurping the wine in their mouths just as noisily. And then, with an exaggerated flourish, with several more wines to go, Gawand spits the blood red wine into a steel spittoon. But when the metal container is passed around, several mouths open but no wine emerges. His tasters, it appears, have swallowed their glasses’ contents. Until a few years ago, given the poor quality of Indian wines, spitting would perhaps have been the spontaneous reaction. But not today. From one of the mouths instead emerges an explanation: “It feels like such a shame to waste it.”

Nashik stands some four hours away from Mumbai. Connected by an inter-city expressway under a blazing sun, some 240 km long, large trucks totter and sway under the immense weight of the materials they carry to feed the industry of this growing city. Far away, mounds of distant hills dot the horizon. There are dirt tracks here that transport travellers within minutes into the remote world of India’s villages, filled with bullock carts, cows and farmlands of tomatoes and onions. And every so often along the expressway you will see pilgrims, groups and families of devotees clutching saffron flags and marigolds, possibly walking all the way to a Nashik temple in this sapping heat.

And then, on this road of pilgrims and trucks, out of nowhere, will appear cars, filled with groups of raucous friends, young men and women crying out with glee, booming through clouds of dust and disappearing into one of the approaching city’s many vineyards. For Nashik, the city of industry and faith which plays hosts to the Kumbh Mela every 12 years, is now also India’s oenophile destination.

It’s India’s Napa Valley, as its vinters put it.

Farmers in and around Nashik have been cultivating table grapes and other crops for many centuries. From the late 1990s onwards, local entrepreneurs turned to it—its dry sunny climate, its paucity of rain except during monsoons, its soil which produced high-quality table grapes, and its location, so close to Mumbai—to produce Indian wine. Today, several varieties of wine grapes are grown here, from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, to Malbec and Viognier. But the journey has been tough.

When Sumedh Singh Mandla worked in the hotel industry a few years ago, at the Taj in Mumbai and Goa, and Marriott in Mumbai and Sydney, he used to struggle, he says frankly, to feature Indian wines on the wine list. At most, it would be one or two wines. And even that would constantly be checked to ensure it was good enough. “You know how it is at good hotels,” says Mandla, who now works as the CEO at Grover Zampa Vineyards. “You have to keep only the best wines. One complaint and we would have had it.”

It wasn’t just the quality of Indian wine; the entire industry was in the doldrums. Nashik had become a hub for winemaking by a little over a decade earlier. Lured by the state government’s Grape Processing Policy, which liberalised licensing for setting up wineries and reduced taxes on wines produced in the state, coupled with the initial rapid growth in wine sales, several entrepreneurs jumped into the fray. In the five years leading to 2008, according to some estimates, the domestic wine industry was growing at an annual rate of about 30 per cent. But they were all sashaying down a primrose path. “It was like a gold rush,” as Shailendra Pai, founder of Vallonne Vineyards, remembers that period. “Almost everyone was getting into it. People with even little or no understanding of wine. They were saying, ‘This much growth, that much growth.’ But the truth is it was growing because wine as an industry was practically nonexistent before. Obviously it would show quick early growth. People were getting into wine for all the wrong reasons.”

And then the recession hit. Almost all the wineries began to struggle. Several shut down. There was, as vineyards came to realise, far more supply than demand. Unsold wines began to oxidise into vinegar. Farmers who were left with wine grapes they could not sell to vineyards returned to cultivating regular table grapes. And several wineries, tottering towards bankruptcy, began to flood the market with terrible wines, offering one-on-one schemes and impossible-to-sustain discounts. Some like Chateau Indage, then the market leader along with Sula and one of the earliest winemakers, collapsed, taking almost the entire industry down with them. “It was a terrible time, and not just financially,” says Pai. The worst part? The notion that ‘Indian wines are bad’ took hold of people’s minds. “We have to fight that notion even today. You can’t blame them,” adds Pai. “The wines were very bad back then.” A winemaker at the neighbouring vineyard Grover Zampa is more censorious. “It was shit,” he says.

BUT NOW, THE wine industry, still very small, is gradually getting back in the game. The market is nowhere as buoyant as it once appeared back in the mid 2000s. But winemakers, both large and small establishments, in Karnataka and here particularly in Nashik, are now much smarter and stricter about quality. They are experimenting with new varietals of grapes. They are trying out new harvesting techniques, producing newer varieties of wines, many of which now regularly win awards, and are being aggressively sold in distant parts of India and abroad. Vineyard owners are setting up tours and stays (Sula got over 230,000 million visitors last year, the luxury train Deccan Odyssey drops tourists to Grover Zampa every few weeks), they are conducting tastings and wine appreciation sessions, and gradually reviving the Indian wine scene. “Many people will still say Indian wines are not good. But the truth is in comparison with foreign wines in their price range, Indian wines are now far superior,” says Pai. Most European and Chilean wines available in the Indian market, which many praise as better, he says, actually figure in the lower bracket back in their home countries. “They just cost a few euros overseas, but because they are foreign and costly here—due to taxes—people will say they are better than Indian wines,” says Mandla.

The domestic Indian wine market is still very small. It is estimated to be about Rs 1,000 crore in overall revenues, just about 1 per cent of the overall alcoholic spirits sector. And some recent events—demonetisation, the Supreme Court’s ruling that liquor shops not be allowed within 500 m of highways—have further dampened the mood. But over the past few years, the market has begun to grow steadily again, at a clip of over 15 per cent.

The growth is being driven, according to vineyards, by India’s middle-class and its female drinkers. Cecilia Oldne, the global brand ambassador and vice-president of marketing at Sula, points out that while a lot of men who consume wine also continue to drink other forms of alcohol, there is a far -faster growing segment of women drinkers who exclusively (or prefer to) drink wine. Oldne, who was born in Sweden, says she used to see very few people consuming wine when she moved to India to join Sula back in 2007. “Just think about it. Back then, you hardly ever found wine in restaurants. Now it’s impossible to think that way. Almost all good restaurants have an impressive wine list, with several Indian wines on them. It’s remarkable really how quickly things have changed.”

Mandla agrees. “There is a big cultural change coming about in the way wine is perceived here. It’s not just an aspiration thing. People enjoy it. They drink it on social occasions, they store it at homes, they even send it as corporate gifts,” he says. “I know so many people who never drank wine before. But they do so now.”

The biggest Indian wine success story is, of course, Sula. It currently has 65 per cent of the domestic Indian market. Last year it crushed more than 13,000 tonnes of grapes, up 20 per cent from the previous year. Not only does it have an impressively wide range of wines, last year the brand introduced two types of grape brandy, and a few weeks ago, a type of grape whisky. According to Oldne, Sula is on track to sell one million cases in 2016-17. Over the years, several Indian wines have also begun to appear abroad. Most of this has happened by pushing Indian wines in Indian and South Asian restaurants. But some, like Sula, which is available in over 30 countries, as Oldne explains, have gone beyond that. The brand initially used the route created by the popularity of Indian and South Asian cuisine, but has managed to get onto the menu of several Michelin-star restaurants as well.

Like other winemakers, Sula’s toughest phase was during the financial slowdown of 2008-09. While its biggest competitor Chateau Indage bit the dust in that period, Sula was able to make it through, it claims, by focusing on the quality of its wine. It also made the smart decision of introducing a variety of affordable wines, priced under Rs 200 per bottle. It was meant to be a temporary response to recessionary times, but affordable wines continue to add significantly to Sula’s domestic sales.

Other competitors, like Grover Zampa, India’s second largest wine producer, have also been aggressively trying to reach the far corners of the country by banking on inexpensive stuff like port wine. Grover Zampa—which was formed in 2012 after Grover Vineyards, one of India’s oldest wine companies, and Vallée de Vin, owned by industry veterans Deepak Roy and Ravi Jain, merged—is currently in around 30 Indian cities, many of them smaller urban centres. “Many of these markets are smaller and more difficult. Sometimes we are working from scratch, doing tastings and events, creating wine demand,” says Mandla.

But Grover Zampa is not interested in beating Sula in the numbers game. It’s been trying instead to create a niche for itself as India’s most premium winery. Raising his hands to draw an imaginary hoarding, and referring to the over 70 international and national awards it has picked up for its wines in the last few years, Mandla says, “We brand ourselves as India’s most awarded winemaker.”

In that pursuit, it has launched several wines upwards of Rs 1,000, not prices Indians were accustomed to paying for a bottle of wine. These include its Vijay Amritraj range of wines, a label with the former tennis star as its ambassador, launched during the Wimbledon in 2001 at St James’ Court in London. And two years ago, it launched Insignia, currently India’s most expensive wine at Rs 5,000 a bottle. Made from a Shiraz vine at a single vineyard in Bangalore and fermented in barrels for over two years, the wine is entirely, as Mandla says, hand-crafted, from the manner in which it is hand-pressed and extracted gently to the way it is bottled. Only around 300 bottles of it are retailed every year, although Mandla hopes to increase that figure this year. “The idea with Insignia was not to sell lots of bottles. It was to show that India can make top-quality wines.”

Another large winery that has been making a name for itself for quality wines is Fratelli. An Indian-Italian venture between three pairs of brothers (Fratelli, when translated, means ‘brothers’)— the Delhi-based Sekhri brothers, Kapil and Gaurav; the Mohite-Patil brothers in Maharashtra, Ranjitsinh and Arjunsinh; and the Secci brothers from Italy, Andrea and Alessio—it came out with its first batch of wines in 2010 after four years of work on the field. To ensure that the wine is of the finest quality, the enterprise sources all its grapes—unlike other Indian winemakers—from its own vineyard, except for its budget wines. This vineyard is located not in Nashik or the region around Bengaluru, but some 300 km south-east of Mumbai on the Deccan Plateau. The business has a total of 240 acres spread across three spots in Akluj. The specifics of this location, the company claims, makes its wines rather different from the rest. “We have a very dry volcanic soil here. It has more minerals here and even the climate is harsher. So you will find that our wines taste very different from the others. It has got a lot more body and character,” says Kapil Sekhri. According to him, the harsher climate and soil make the vines work harder to survive, thus making their output far more complex than the others.

The viticulturist here, Piero Masi, is a well-known Italian winemaker who is credited with having produced some acclaimed wines overseas. He was first approached by the Secci brothers, who all frequent the same church in Italy, and offered a small stake in the company. Under Masi’s careful watch, Sekhri says, the company has been producing some excellent wines.

Other vineyards in comparison, smarting from the failed strategies of their predecessors, now aim for smaller numbers, choosing to focus on the quality of their output. “We keep our yields low to ensure that there’s a higher concentration of aromas and flavours,” Vallonne Vineyards’ Pai says. “Ninety per cent of the work in a winery is really in the vineyard. So we control every stage of the vine-to-wine journey very carefully.”

OUTSIDE VALLONE’S underground laboratory, several workers are to be seen putting together a straw shelter. In the next few days, around 300 people will work for seven days at a stretch, tying and stringing up around two tonnes of Chenin Blanc grapes to dry them. Once the grapes dry into raisins, it will be used to make a dessert wine, Vin De Passerillage, a limited edition of just under 1,000 small bottles. This sweet golden wine is said to be the only one currently in the country which is crafted along the lines of the straw wine from Jura, France. “It’s such hard work, this wine. So many people have to work on it, and a single grape gives such little juice,” Aditi Pai, Shailendra’s daughter, remarks. “And we finish it in a single gulp. I wonder sometimes why we even do it.”

Shailendra is an old hand at wines. He started his career in the wine business with Champagne India, the former avatar of Chateau Indage, back in the 1980s. His winery, Vallone, run by his family, has a very personal feel to it. The family members walk through tours and tastings, mingle with guests in the restaurant and the lodges above. The emphasis, as Shailendra says, is on appreciating and enjoying the wines. “You can’t be in the wine industry unless you have a passion for it,” he says. “You need lots of capital. And unlike other industries, you have to wait for several months, sometimes years, before the product is ready to be sold.”

And then there is the climate. Droughts can burn the wallets of vinters, hailstorms can harm well-maintained vines within a single day. Sometimes vines can catch a virus, and vinters then have to uproot all vines and wait for years to plant a new crop. Even when harvest time nears, which winemakers decide by tasting the grapes every day for ripeness, and everything appears to be progressing normally, a flock of birds can descend from nowhere to have a go at the grapes. Some, like Vallonne, employ a man who goes around the vineyard drumming to scare away the birds. Others use a large net to keep birds away from the vines.

On a pleasant evening, we climb a hill of vines to reach the highest point in Grover Zampa’s Nashik property. It is scenic, no matter which direction you turn. A large sun is dipping behind the Sahyadri hills to the west. Up ahead, beyond the slopes, are the clear backwaters of the Mukhne Dam. All around are tender vines drooping under the weight of black and green grapes that will soon be harvested. It makes for a fine holiday spot, and it’s little wonder that Grover Zampa is looking at constructing several villas here. Sushant Soni, the hospitality manager on the premises, tells me of a tour some weeks ago in the same vineyard. Walking about, his guests and he had chanced upon a snake. His two visitors began to flee at the sight, running down the slope into the safety of the building below. Soni began to run after them too, shouting that they were making a mistake.

“It’s good. It’s good for the vineyard,” he’d shouted. “The snakes, they will keep the rodents and birds away.”