The Indian wine market has grown manifold in the past decade, especially with regard to domestic produce. This makes it alluring for new players to enter and break the monotony of the pre-existing systems by creating new offerings.
However, there is one approach that India caught on to from its early phase –“Reserve” wines. It started with Kanwal Grover’s visit to Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux which prompted him to produce “Reserve” style wines on home turf. With assistance from high-flying winemaker, Michel Rolland, Grover’s Vineyards created La Réserve, India’s answer to Bordeaux reds. Since its introduction in 1992, La Réserve has been cajoling Indian palates towards a finer drop and inspiring other wineries to create more such wines. Sula Vineyards introduced their Dindori Reserve range in 2005, followed by RASA, and amongst the more recent producers, Fratelli Vineyards’ SETTE and York Winery’s Arros have been the scene stealers.
With the continuous pressure on Indian wineries to produce wines of international styles and quality, the reserve wine segment has been growing steadily and recording improvements, both in the variety of produce as well as in quality. However, the dampener is that in this price-sensitive, spirits-dominated market, where the per capita wine consumption is less than a tablespoon, the majority of consumers are reluctant to experiment with the top drops, rubbishing them as “ridiculously expensive” and priced high simply to lure consumers into believing that they are of higher quality.
This is the price producers have to pay in the adolescent stages of their reserve wine production, and the new breed of brave-hearted winemakers are still experimenting and producing better quality and technically-correct wines.
The Sommelier India Tasting Panel met to taste these aspiring wines, showcasing over a dozen Indian Reserve Reds. Instantaneously, the hike in quality from the past few years was obvious and impressive. The wines were shown to have become cleaner, more stable, and truer to their varietal expression. While some wines stood out more, the standard of wine-production overall was commendable. Here are some key findings from the tasting.
In the old world countries, Reserve or Reserva is a specific nomenclature indicating a stipulated ageing regimen. However, in the new world countries, especially Australia and Chile, Reserve has no such definition. Jacob’s Creek’s Steve McCliff’s explanation clarifies the difference. He noted that in Australia, some winemakers “reserve” the best crop to produce higher quality wines, which they then call Reserve wines, without any ageing implications. In India, with the lack of appellation regulations or laws governing either winemaking or label integrity, winemakers have the freedom to experiment and express their produce as they desire. Thus, reserve wines in India are yet to settle upon a definition of the term. Till then, we can either say they are higher quality wines meant for ageing, or are wines made from the best crop in their vineyards.
USE OF OAK
Extensive use of oak mistranslates into addition of flavour, richness, and extravagance in wines, making them seem bigger and bolder, and thus often mistaken for high-quality wines justifying a hefty price-tag. Though it’s true that most highly rated wines have some conversation with oak before their release, for example, Bordeaux reds, Burgundy whites, Californian and Aussie blue chip wines, oak doesn’t automatically connote quality. Some Indian reserve reds have a heavy oak accent which tends to tip the wine over the line of balance and harmony, masking the varietal’s identity. Having said that, most prestigious wine styles, including Barolo, Chianti, Bordeaux and Rioja reds started out with a perception of being over-oaked, but are today symbols of quality and style. Perhaps we in India have a style of our own in the making.
Nashik-based Vintage Wines produces wines under the Reveilo label. We found their Reserve Cabernet to be appropriately oaked, maintaining the varietal expression and harmony amongst various factors. Similarly, the newly introduced wines from Charosa Vineyards are using high quality oak in a restrained and adequate fashion.
While Indian wine governance suffers from the lack of an appellation system, it is near impossible to create one without a proper understanding of how the varieties will react to our climates and soils. Producers are still trying to learn about their vineyards and experimenting with the varietals grown every year. As a result, we have a surprisingly large array of varietal and blended reserve reds on the shelves.
Fratelli Vineyard’s SETTE is a case in point. Their first vintage release of 2009 SETTE was the first Indian Sangiovese-based blended reserve red. It was well received by the market. However, with the vintage not supporting the varietal the following year, the winery moved to a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend for its 2010 reserve. The 2011 vintage supported Sangiovese again, thus moving the blend to its original recipe.
Grover Zampa and Charosa Vineyards are together responsible for the growth of Tempranillo in the market producing blended (Chêne) and single-varietal styles, respectively. Tempranillo works well on Indian iron-rich soil, delivering age-worthy and drinkable wines.
It is interesting how Reveilo’s Syrah and Four Seasons’ Barrique Reserve Shiraz are great examples of their styles, showcasing the versatility of the grape – the Reveilo being of a delicate feminine style while the Four Seasons is a more robust version. Sula Vineyards’ recent offering of RASA Cabernet Sauvignon promises a good varietal expression.
SEARCHING FOR IDENTITY
It’s natural to base your wines on a template or style that is already appreciated by the consumer’s palate. Being a very young industry, Indian wines can’t focus on varietals, regional expression, vintage charts, or terroir just yet. While the European template or style utilises varietals to show regional nuances, the new world believes in showcasing varietal expression irrespective of its place of origin. For India, while the Super-Tuscan formula of not following a template, but rather creating one of its own, seems to be the right move for now, the thought of how the producers want their reserve wines to be perceived in the future must also be considered. This applies for their domestic as well as international markets.
York Winery’s Arros presents a brilliantly concocted Australia-meets-Bordeaux template, crafting amicable, elegant and approachable wines. Grover Zampa’s Chêne paints the Rioja red picture from the first sniff while Fratelli Vineyards’ SETTE is still trying to find its true style or maybe creating one. Needless to say, consistency is the key, especially with such variety now available and the consumers’ ever-diminishing attention span.
For the consumer, it all boils down to the moolah they must spend to enjoy these top offerings from the top wineries. Since reserve wines call for the best crop, finesse-driven production, and utmost care thereafter, consumers must be educated to expect to pay a higher price. It becomes easier for the wineries if their consumers are better informed as to what goes into winemaking and why wines are expensive. Having said that however, the price differential between the Reserve reds is rather inexplicable. With York Vineyard’s Arros retailing below Rs 1000 on the one hand, and Reserves from Sula and Fratelli Vineyards touching Rs 2000 on the other, there seems to be no commonality in the segment amongst the winemakers. As much as for wine style, pricing is another aspect where the winemakers should come together to find a consensual strategy.
The Reserve category is a good way to show sincerity and dedication to the cause of the wine culture. But winemakers shouldn’t blindly aspire to a Reserve just for the sake of it, least of all by simply putting a higher price tag on a wine from their range. A Reserve is a celebration of all the effort that goes into making a wine: this is the idea that must be exemplified and communicated to the consumer. So any wine destined to be called a Reserve should be all about individuality and expression, character and location. Only then will we see India grow in the world wine scene as a serious competitor, rather than as yet another country trying to jump on to the bandwagon.