|For India’s wine aficionados, an era of deprivation may soon come to an end.
Peter Mandelson, EU trade commissioner, who arrived in New Delhi on Friday, will next week launch a formal complaint with the World Trade Organisation over the welter of taxes and duties that can push up by as much as 300 per cent the cost of wines and spirits imported to India from Europe.
Reva K. Singh of Sommelier India was quoted in the article discussing the Indian wine market and the regulations limiting the import of foreign wines.
Sky-high retail prices of mediocre European vin de table have kept Indian wine imports from the 25-country bloc to just €4m ($5.1m) in 2004, according to EU figures. “This is a serious issue,” says Mr Mandelson. “Their regime is not compatible with WTO rules. There are trade barriers that are a clear breach of their international commitments.”
With global trade talks suspended, the EU and India are mulling a trade agreement that would permit continued bilateral reduction in barriers to commerce. Mr Mandelson says India would gain. “India accounts for only 1.5 per cent of services trade and 1 per cent of merchandise trade. It is woefully underperforming its potential. Its economy is closed, insufficiently dynamic, over-regulated and over-protected.”
Although Grover and Sula, two ubiquitous Indian wines, have their fans – Grover’s La Réserve ‘02 was voted the best new world red by Steven Spurrier of Decanter in a recent blind tasting – wine buffs feel they could definitely use some competition. If prices fall as part of that process, no one will be happier than Reva Singh, editor and publisher of Sommelier India, the country’s first wine newsletter.
“Wine lovers are being short-changed,” she says. “If I have one message to the Indian government, it’s please open up the market in wine, like they’re doing in so much else. I don’t believe it would hurt indigenous industry as the market is growing so fast. People are reading about all the wonderful wines in Sommelier India and are saying ‘Where can I buy them?’, but they’re out of reach of the average consumer.”
With the average Indian still knocking back mol-asses-based whisky – much of it home-brewed, and potent beers such as KnockOut, wine remains an elite taste.
“The government should encourage people to move to wine, which is better for people’s health,” says Kulbir Singh, treasurer of India’s 130-member Wine Society. “If the government is doing this to protect local industry, it will never improve.”
In truth, India’s ferocious eight-month long summers, when temperatures soar to the mid-40s, will continue to punish delicate wines. “What’s the point paying an indecent amount to import a decent French wine, which (poor darling) cannot handle the Indian Summer?” asks Shobhaa De, a best-selling author, social commentator and foodie, writing in the latest issue of Sommelier India, which has 8,000 subscribers.
Protectionism and climate are just part of the explanation for the sad absence of Pouilly Fuissé. In a society influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s teetotal lifestyle – his birthday is a dry day – the ideal of self-denial is also a factor.
The EU today has a tiny share of what is one of the largest spirits and wine markets in the world.
“There are potentially as many incipient alcoholics in India as anywhere else in the world and our job is to encourage them to take the final step,” Mr Mandelson says with a devilish chuckle as he heads off to a meeting with his Indian counterpart, Kamal Nath.
By Jo Johnson in New Delhi
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006