He was introduced to good wine in his 20s, since then all that Raghavendra Gowda dreamt about was owning a vineyard. Now at 33, with his first vintage already on the shelves, Gowda is bracing himself for bigger things reports Alok Chandra. This article first appeared in Volume 7, Issue 2 of Sommelier India- The Wine Magazine. Subscribe today and receive the magazine as soon as it hits the newsstands. Sommelier India is required reading for Indians around the world who enjoy the good life.
A new 240-acre, largely organic vineyard and a state-of-the-art winery capable of producing up to 1.2 million litres of wine, set up at an initial investment of over Rs 125 crore, ($ 25 million) with Stephane Derenoncourt as the consulting winemaker, will make news anywhere. In India, where Alpine Wineries’ first vintage of three reds has just hit retail shelves in Bangalore, it promises to be a game-changer.
Alpine Wineries is located 130 kms southwest of Bangalore, off the road to Mysore near Belakavadi village – the 1,250 acre triangular plot is clearly visible in Google Maps, the land sloping gently down to a bend in the Cauvery (Kaveri) river, which is just two kilometres away. The ancient temple town of Talakad is 11 kms away, on the same side of the river. The land has been with the Gowda family since the 1950s, and was lying fallow till Raghavendra decided to grow wine grapes here. The soil has a high proportion of gravel mixed with sand and silt, with bedrock of non-compacted sandstone mixed with chalk at between 5 and 8 ft depth. The area receives between 550 to 600 mm of rain annually and has a high temperature amplitude, with daytime temperatures in March/April touching 36° C, while the night temperature hit a 50-year low of 8° in January 2012.
The Cauvery (Kaveri) river rises in the Coorg (Kodagu) district of Karnataka state in the Western Ghats (mountains) and flows some 750 kms south and east across the Deccan Plateau and the South Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu before emptying into the Bay of Bengal at Tranquebar. While its upper and lower reaches are probably unsuitable for grapes, the section in Karnataka is, and hence has been given the appellation “Kaveri Valley” in recognition of this potential. This initiative was championed by Raghavendra, who was a member of the “Indian Wine Processing Board”(IGPB) till February 27, 2012, and whose winery is the very first to be established in this very new appellation.
Raghavendra Gowda is an unlikely poster-boy for the wine industry. Still single at 33, youthful, slim, and sporting a pony-tail, he would not be out of place on a university campus or protest rally, and yet has almost single handedly established the most technically-advanced vineyard and winery in India in a little over four years. “The idea was in my mind for many years,” he says, “I started to research viticulture in 2003, preparing the land in 2005, and planted the first vineyards in 2007.”
The first vineyards were a 38-acre “experimental” plot planted at 1,450 vines per acre with a combination of different rootstocks (he didn’t want to be restricted to only Dog Ridge and Ramsey, he says) and varietal clones, to test their suitability to the terroir. Traditional granite poles, drip irrigation from the best Indian vendor (Jain Irrigation) and the cordon vine training system were used. Vine cuttings were imported from ENTAV (Montpellier, France), the most authentic source for certified clones in the world. Apart from tried and tested varietals like Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc, these included Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Tempranillo in the reds and Chardonnay, Vermentino, Grillo, Moscato and Petit Manseng in the whites.
Stephane Derenoncourt got involved with the project in 2008. “He is the best thing that could have happened to me,” says Raghavendra. “His knowledge of vines and wine, and contacts in the wine world are just fantastic.” Stephane is (along with Michel Rolland, who consults for Grover Vineyards) one of the two most famous winemaking consultants from France, and it is interesting that the two are advising wineries in Karnataka.
When Derenoncourt joined the second section of 202 acres was developed and planted at a higher density (2,250 vines/acre), using the very latest technology and equipment. The centrally controlled automatic drip irrigation was imported from Netafim (Israel) and water pumps from Ground Force (UK). Even the staves and wires used for the trellis are imported.
Alpine’s long-term plan is to plant all 1,250 acres, by which time a second winery of 1.2 million litres would have to be set up to process the crop. Hence Raghavendra has already laid down the infrastructure to plant the entire 1,250 acres: 19 borewells and 10 acres of water bodies for storing up to 100 million litres water; 25 kms of piping for the water system; 45 kms of underground copper cables wiring the entire property for drip irrigation; a 200 KVA high-tension power line drawn from 15 kms away; and four weather stations linked by wireless and the internet to the University of Basel in Switzerland, which provides weather forecasts and spraying instructions. “These are long-term investments – I did not want to have problems down the line with either equipment or manpower,” Gowda said. No wonder his vineyards have cost Rs 14 to 15 lakhs per acre to develop, against the Indian norm of Rs 3 to 4 lakhs.
The winery itself has been entirely designed in Austria with 40,000 square feet of space, and is almost entirely imported from Europe – pre-fabricated puff-panels for the building, a Europress wine press from Germany, Burgenland wine tanks from Austria, an automatic bottling line from GAI, and liquid glycol chilling system and automatic temperature control system both from Austria. The present capacity is 400,000 litres, which will be expanded to 800,000 litres by next year, and can further be increased to 1.2 million litres by adding storage tanks.
The vineyards are run largely on organic lines. The vines are interspersed with leguminous plants and weeded manually rather than controlled by chemical sprays. The single biggest problem here is downy mildew, which is controlled using a combination of neem and fungicides. Yields are kept ruthlessly low to between two to three metric tonnes an acre through a variety of measures: bottom pruning, bunch-thinning, and selective watering, all of which result in grapes of better quality. Much of the new vineyard has been planted with “A” category clones, which give lower yields but significantly better quality.
One might well ask, “Why Alpine” wineries? “The name was inspired by the surrounding hills,” says Raghavendra – and indeed there is a range of hills across the Cauvery valley, the BR Hills, made infamous by the dacoit Veerappan.
As I have said elsewhere, Alpine Wineries is to my mind the largest and best winery to be established in India in the last 10 years. They’ve done everything right: hired the best winemaking consultants and spent time and money establishing the best possible vineyards and winery. The quality of their first vintage is impressive, and can only improve as the vines mature. They also have a slew of new varietals waiting to come-of-age which will keep the Alpine in the news for years to come.
The challenge now is to establish distribution and get consumers to convert to their wines, both in India and overseas – never an easy task for a new winery. However, if what’s been done so far is any indication, Raghavendra Gowda is just getting started. Expect to hear more of this enterprising young man from Karnataka in the future.
The first releases from Alpine are three reds:
VINDIVA “Valley of Dreams” Shiraz 2010, Reserve
A deep ruby colour, with an intense nose of berries and spice. Medium-plus body, with the fruit carrying through to the palate, some oak, soft balanced tannins, and a long finish. Very impressive for a first vintage. Price: Rs 875/bottle in Bangalore.
VINDIVA Cabernet Shiraz 2011
Spicy and peppery nose along with berry fruit. Medium-bodied, with firm balanced tannins and a good finish. Price: Rs 685 in Bangalore
ORO Cabernet Shiraz 2011
Good clean aromas of berries and some spice. A lighter body, but with nice balanced tannins and flavour and a nice finish. Price: Rs 415 in Bangalore.
Awaiting release, even as I write, are three Sauvignon Blanc wines with the same categories, and perhaps prices.