Drinking Wine in India, a personal perspective

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raoindia2.jpg My wine experience during my stay in India was eye-opening. If you told me five years ago that Indians would put down their bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label for a glass of Shiraz, I would laugh. After spending a few days in Chennai, my concept of an Indian wine shop was bleak: a wine stand (see photo) with men standing around in lungis all day, taking shots of “wine” i.e. liquor or port.

Dini Rao formerly in the wine department at Christie’s, and a personal friend, sent us this report. This was first published on Dr. Vino


Then I arrived in Mumbai where swank hotels and restaurants of Mumbai serve Veuve Clicquot yellow label for Rs. 2000 or $50 a glass. Top wineries attract Indians eager for tours with beautiful tasting rooms. As if welcoming me to the city, the March 9 issue of Time Out Mumbai featured “Wine: Why we’re all drinking it,” a 12 page spread about wine bars, producers and sommeliers around town. According to a recent Newsweek International online article, Bollywood, which just graduated to showing its first scandalous onscreen kiss on the lips, features stars sipping wine in recent movies.
Wine, while trendy, also seems to have serious takers. Enthusiasts flock together to form wine clubs in major cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Banglaore. When invited to witness a Wine Society of India tasting, I quickly dropped my previous plans to see Stephen Spurrier speak to 500 assembled Indian guests.
India’s wine future seems bright. Euromonitor predicts 100% growth from the 9 million bottles currently consumed in India over the next five years. Consumption per capita is low in the billion-person country, but concentrated, as Mumbai itself drinks 40% of wine by value. No wonder the WTO led by the EU and US pressure India to change the import duties on foreign wines which currently reach as much as 550%.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of India’s wine culture is its own wine production. For one thing: how is it possible in that heat?? India’s climate does not allow grapevines to become dormant, as is typical in winter. With the opportunity for two harvests, growers prune back vines to collect a single harvest per year, allowing for more concentrated fruit. raoindia6.jpg

Using the mild, dry winters as the growing season, harvest occurs from February to March as in the Southern Hemisphere. During the forced dormant months of April through September, the heat of summer precedes monsoon rains that nourish the vines.
High altitudes in foothill areas around Nasik and Bangalore create moderate temperatures conducive to wine grape cultivation. Maharashtra state is home to over 40 wineries, with half near the holy city of Nasik, 80 miles northeast of Mumbai. At 2000’ altitude, the high temperature difference between day and night in Nasik allows for complex flavor development.
Nasik’s viticulture began with excellent table grapes for eating, which garnered high prices due to cool temperatures and excellent water sources. Now contract grape farmers supply the burgeoning wine production with vinifera grapes such as Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Zinfandel, though Thomson Seedless still finds its way into many bottles. Limits on agricultural land holdings require wineries to rely on farmers who lack proper training and tend to over-irrigate.

raoindia4.jpg While much sweet, highly alcoholic wine still exists, modern winemaking has arrived in India with gusto. Large, air conditioned wineries arrive at an alarming rate equipped with French oak barrels, temperature controlled fermentation tanks, gyropalettes and pneumatic presses.

Wine pioneers Kapil and Kanwal Grover fell in love with wine after purchasing 1961 Mouton from Christie’s.
Flying winemaker Michel Rolland has consulted for Grover Vineyards in Bangalore since 1995 and other foreign consultants present their solutions to various wineries for hefty fees.

Winemakers learn to compensate for lesser fruit by regularly acidifying, adding enzymes for color, and making other adjustments with no regulatory controls. As site selection, viticultural practices and experience improves, Indian wine has both the potential and the market to thrive. The next hurdle will be temperature controlled shipping and storage. raoindia7.jpg
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