The Trouble with Indian Wine

In Vino Veritas: in wine, they say, lies truth. And the truth is that most Indian wineries need to get their act together
Upstart
GOOD TO GO? Inside the cellar of an Indus Wines vineyard at Igatpuri near Nasik, Maharashtra

At 9 pm on a Saturday, the upmarket F Bar at Indiabulls Centre in Mumbai is crowded with a combination of corporate types and couples enjoying a weekend dinner. But there is something unusual about most tables. India might well be called a ‘whisky nation’ (two of every three Indian drinkers still cite whisky as their top preference), but the guests here seem to have grapes on their mind. At one table, a couple toasts their anniversary with two glasses of Chardonnay. At another, a group of five orders a bottle of Merlot. A little away, the sommelier recommends Sauvignon Blanc to a young couple being initiated. Wine is the mood in evidence.

Indian oenophilia has come a long way since the days when “Can I have some wine?” was an adequate request. From just being able to tell red apart from white, the consumer now knows the difference between assorted variants of white (such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc) and red wines (such as Merlot, Shiraz or a very Indian variant of Zinfandel). Knowledge of wine vintage is no longer scarce either. “The Indian palate has evolved to a great extent, but there is still a long way to go,” says Sovna Puri, deputy general manager, marketing, and head of tasting and training at Sula Vineyards. “Wine was not a preferred drink till about six or eight years ago. That many now prefer it over any other alcoholic beverage is a transition in itself, but India’s wine culture is still evolving. Of course, this is good news, since it can only get better from here.”

The problem lies not in Indian palates, but elsewhere. Simply put, Indian wines have not been able to keep pace with the evolving wine consumer. While some have made it to select wine lists and even award rolls of honour across the world, Indian wine by and large is an industry that still needs to overcome the pangs of its emergence from infancy.

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For an industry that is less than two decades old, Indian wines have not done too badly. But experts argue that a lack of strict governing rules and a hurry to catch up with other new wine producing countries in terms of production volumes are leading India’s wine industry astray.

“Indian wines have a huge price advantage over their imported counterparts. The quality of some of our wines made by select producers is getting better every year. But there are a few producers who need to do better, and, of course, we need to give ourselves some time,” says sommelier Nikhil Agarwal, who is also director of All Things Nice, a company that deals with wine marketing and organises wine tastings, among other things. “We have only been making wine in India for the last 20-odd years,” he says, “which is nothing in comparison with other wine-producing countries.”

According to Agarwal, the industry is still in its infancy. “We are making better wine and there are a few wines that can compete on a global platform, but we need to get our act together fast,” he says, “A general increase in quality, more wineries in operation and more awareness of Indian wines are essential.” Says Shubhas Arora, president of Delhi Wine Club: “Grapes from each region in the world are unique. Therefore, India will have its own share of the global market. With a growing population of expats and the popularity of Indian cuisine abroad, wine is a natural beverage [slated] for growth. Ease of availability will help too. Labour is cheap in India and viticulture is labour-intensive, which will always be a plus. But our wine industry is still in a formative stage even after 20 years. There are no laws, nor is there expertise in making or selling wines so far. Farmers often think of the wine business as the simple fermentation of grape juice. They have been producing grapes [for direct consumption], but do not appreciate that wine grapes are different and so haven’t fully developed an attitude and understanding that’s required. Hygiene has also been a problem, resulting in defective and unclean wines. India, being a tropical country, has two crops a year. One crop is just [discarded]. But there is no effective dormancy of vines, which is essential for producing quality wines. The short-term goal of high yields to make it cheaper, by [lowering the] cost per kg of grapes, also affects quality.”

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Despite such pressing issues, some Indian wines such as Sula Zinfandel and La Reserva from Grover and the UB Group’s Four Seasons have made their mark on the international scene. But overall, Indian wines have yet to attain the stature of what’s produced by other wine producing countries. “Indian wine makers have so far not concentrated their efforts in the export arena,” says Arora, “They have focused on expanding the domestic market first. With lack of any clear laws or benchmarking, quality has suffered. A turnaround has finally started over the past three-four years, though. The economic slowdown in India has also made winemakers look for markets abroad.”

According to Abhay Kewadkar, chief winemaker and business head for wines, Four Seasons Vineyards of the UB Group:

“There is no central authority to certify wine labels in India. In countries like France and Italy, a wine bottle label is certified by a central authority. So no wine producer can get away with false claims. In India, the Government has been planning something to this effect, but though a bill has been passed, it is yet to become an act.”

Cecilia Oldne, head, international business & global brand ambassador for Sula, disagrees. “Indian wines are uni- que,” she argues, “The terroir (soil and climate) of India, and Nasik in particular, gives Indian wines a distinct taste and feel. At Sula, for instance, we have not tried to copy the taste of foreign wines; rather, we have tried to create wines that would suit the Indian palate. When it comes to winemaking, we have been able to match our global counterparts in many aspects.” Sula Vineyards’ premium range of wines, for instance, is exported to over 20 countries worldwide. Similar- ly, Grover Wines, the other Indian biggie, also exports its wines to over a dozen international markets.

Oldne’s colleague Sovna Puri agrees that some Indian wines have been able to match European competitors. “I can say this confidently about Sula,” she says, “In my previous job, I was working at a Michelin-starred restaurant, the Relias & Chateaux property in France, where the only Indian wine listed was Sula.”

But why haven’t more Indian wines made it to Michelin-starred restaurants or into the cellars and onto the dining tables of Argentinian, Australian, British or American homes?

Alok Chandra, a Bengaluru-based wine consultant, feels there are several reasons for this. He blames quality, price, market spend, image and how Indian wines are positioned in the global consumer’s mind as the main reasons for their underperformance. ‘While the quality of several Indian wines has progressed, Indian wines tend to be outpriced by competitors from other new-world producers who have been at the game for years. Two, wineries trying to enter markets overseas get little support from the agencies concerned in India and Indian embassies overseas. When was the last time an Indian ambassador anywhere hosted a party [with] Indian wines?’ asked Chan- dra recently in a newspaper.

AS FAR AS the production process goes, one major criticism of Indian wines is that they use table grapes, which are grown as fruit but not to make wine, and are then blended with an undisclosed volume of older vintages. Internationally, producers have to mention details of how a wine was made on its label. Indian wines seldom have a label one can read.

“According to general viticultural practices, grapes should be harvested when ready to be made into wine and are phenolic ripe,” says Arora, referring to a group of compounds—phenolics—that contribute to colour pigmentation, apart from a wine’s flavour/aroma. “There is no harm in harvesting all grapes if the time is right and the fermented juice can find a market. Table grapes, being cheaper, are mixed clandestinely due to their lower cost. Even the yields are kept higher than declared to save cost, thus affecting quality.”

Oldne says that while some wineries may be doing this, as a market leader, Sula does not. “Though wines can be made of table grapes, it is not something Sula Vineyards subscribes to,” she claims, “Table grapes do not have the properties and content that are ideal for wine production. There is also a substantial shift in the preference of grapes grown by local farmers from whom we source our [inputs]. We have contracts with farms for over 1,500 acres of wine grapes that are carefully selected and checked for quality and consistency.”

Her colleague Puri agrees that wine can also be made of table grapes, but says such wine is of low quality and has no ageing potential.

Blending is another big reason Indian wines are not rated highly by global connoisseurs. “Blending happens due to the absence of wine laws in India,” says Arora, “Wineries are saddled with extra wine from previous vintages. Most countries allow up to 15 per cent of previous vintages added to the current one, but there is no such law in India. The quality of wine in the tank starts deteriorating after a year. Such blending is allowed abroad only for low-quality table wines. But in India, many wines that claim high pedigree have an undisclosed amount of blending.”

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Yet, as Puri says, the scenario has been so dismal that the future can only get brighter. “I see Indian wine-drinkers drinking well-made Indian wine in the years to come,” says Agarwal. “Serious wineries will gain brand recognition and those who don’t take consumers seriously will vanish. Indian wineries are realising that in order to sell wine in India, they must make good wine.”

Arora is also optimistic about the industry’s future. “There are enough producers with passion who are working for its long-term interests and are quality-conscious. They will use all the rules in the book to expand and make the business profitable in the long run. They will be able to produce higher quantities at reasonable prices—competition will force them to. There is going to be a shake-up in the industry. Those who emerge will be stronger.”

Sula, widely regarded as India’s market leader, has already expanded its footprint to 20 markets overseas. “Our premium range of wines is now available in neighbourhood countries Nepal and Bhutan,” says Oldne. “One of our focuses today is to introduce our wines in new emerging economies. With our 2012 vintage being the best so far, we believe we will soon enter new markets such as Africa, China and South America.”

Winemakers are eager to make the most of a global opportunity, and if that means making better wine, better wine it shall be. But to ensure that a few rotten players do not sour the rest of the industry’s prospects worldwide, the effort could do with the Government’s backing. It is an industry with vast export potential, and if enacting a few laws and imposing regulations is what it takes to raise overall levels of quality, it would be well worth doing.