Winemaking bears striking similarities to the debate about the sport of boxing versus judo. In boxing, one goes full throttle, punches hard, and bruises the opponent to win. It’s a display of strength, grit, and tenacity, but generally short-lived. In judo, there’s barely any aggression, rather it’s an art of movement, agility, adaptation, and wisdom. One doesn’t apply one’s own power, you manoeuvre according to your opponent’s movements, using their own strength against them to claim victory.
This is analogous to human intervention vis-a-vis natural progression in the making of wine. Punch hard, pump in chemicals, exploit the balance, and it’ll yield results — but not for long. Work with nature, pick what’s been dealt, turn it into opportunities, and you’ll create the best possible outcome. Take care of nature, and nature will take care of you, it’s really that simple. Human intervention has done so much that now there’s a definite need to balance the act. And who do you turn to then, to lead the way in doing this? Definitely the big guns, right? Sula Vineyards, India’s largest winemaker, is already leading by example.
Sula’s journey began in 1999, a millennial winery, with flair and energy, and on the constant lookout to create anew, transforming rather than disrupting, and adding many ‘firsts’ to the Indian wine scene. To begin with, it was the very first winery in what’s now the wine capital of the country, Nashik. It’s Sula’s self-belief, confident experimentation and adaptation that’s brought them to the top. And now, they’re working to secure the natural indices that work to craft their best wines. As they say, if nature is respected, it’ll show in your wines. With the rise of their premium section, Rasa and The Source and new experiments in the vineyards with Grenache, Moscato, sparkling Shiraz, and much more, Sula is striding into its golden era while keeping a tight grip on its sustainable, environment friendly, ethical experimentations and community building.
“Covid hit us hard, but the bounce back has been super. There’s been a 20% growth in our wine sales and the image of Indian wines has grown too,” says the captain of the ship, Rajeev Samant. And many agree.
The clamp down on socialising and shopping at stores, coupled with resultant online sales and home delivery of alcohol has changed the consumption pattern in major cities. Wines have gained the most, especially in the premium Indian wine segment, at the Rs 1000+ mark. “It’s great to see Indian consumers becoming more discerning regarding local wines and looking forward to the new style that’s being crafted,” he adds.
Sula’s focus on premiumising its offerings has contributed to the change. But what’s most impressive is Sula’s efforts in the area of sustainability and environmental responsibility. It has been playing judo for a while and the results are starting to show. Rajeev is an environmentalist and has made sustainable practices non-negotiable at every stage.
Unlike most wineries, Sula does not import glass bottles, but sources them locally. The bottles are lighter in weight, thus reducing the carbon footprint in their procurement. Corks have been replaced by screwcaps, and 99% of their packaging material is recyclable. Sula is already producing over 50% of all its energy needs through solar panels and aims to soon move completely off the coal-powered electricity grid with renable energy. There’s rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation in the vineyards, and the use of only e-vehicles on the site.
The fruits and vegetables at the winery and the resort are grown locally, and are 100% organic. Sula became the first Indian winery to join the International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA) that aims at zero carbon emission by 2050. (See SI Spring 2022) Rajeev, going one better, has been pushing to achieve the goal by 2040! “We don’t have the time to wait till 2050,” he says. A similar effort, even if in part, is now definitely expected from other wineries. It may be an expensive pursuit, but it’s now a necessity. Kudos to Sula for yet again setting the benchmark, and a high one at that.
A big part of successful winemaking is to upgrade the areas around the vineyards. For healthy vineyards, polyculture is imperative. It’s been a constant drive for Sula to reforest the neighbouring areas. Each year, they work with the forest department to identify deforested lands and initiate rehabilitating them. Their annual drive has seen more than 10,000 trees planted, and Rajeev says this is still a work in progress. This project gains approval from their employees, consumers, the government, and the farmers they work with. They’re not only making wines, but also building a better community for all.
Now all this isn’t an overnight change. As they say, if you wish to travel fast, travel alone, but if you wish to travel far, travel in a group. Building consensus and taking the community along is essential in the wine world. When Rajeev first landed in Sawargaon, it was a rural, tribal village, with not a single person holding a full-time job. Two decades on, not only is everyone employed, but approximately 90% of the villagers within a 5 km radius are working at Sula. And to keep the employment rates up, the company has adopted a unique policy — if anyone retires from Sula, one of their family members becomes eligible to get a job at the winery! This innovative approach has led to not just job security, but also to great employee loyalty with generations of the same family attached to the same company. Sula’s investment in enriching the quality of life in their surroundings has yielded a rewarding harvest.
“These villages are blooming now. The children have schools to go to, good teachers to mentor them, there’s improved sanitation and hygiene. We’ve installed water ATMs, created gardens for them to chill, with play areas for the kids, and so on. They’ve got an ecosystem of their own now,” Rajeev adds.
This investment has yielded attractive returns for Sula. In a land where farmers have been growing table grapes for decades, it’s daunting to seek to break old habits and move them to growing winemaking grapes. Although there’s higher income as an incentive for them to leave the comfort of the known and venture into a vague, unheard-of territory, taking risks which put their family’s future on the line is definitely a challenge. However, with constant support, education, experimentation, research and trials, Sula has supported the farmers and lifted their spirits and incomes sufficiently so that now they have more contractual farming contributing than any other winery has. And this year Sula is adding another 620 acres of vineyard land under their tutelage, double of what any winery has ever done in a year! This is possible only because the community stands by the winery. With a 20% increase this year, and an equally large growth predicted next year, there’s definitely a need for more produce. Rajeev says the vineyards will see more Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Moscato, etc. That covers nearly all of the RASA and The Source range. And there are more experiments, both, with new varieties as well as towards reviving the fallen hero, Merlot.
The one area in which Sula has had the greatest success it’s in their white and sparkling wines. The Dindori Chardonnay has been a rockstar since its inception in 2018. It’s light, bright, fruity, citrusy, and structured through support from oak. “We’re really happy with it. Dindori improves in the bottle, and gets better with age. Over the past few years, we’ve invested in a ton of research on how to make it better, and where to get the barrels from. Our barrel room has grown too,” says Rajeev. The wine has been life-altering for more reasons. It has enabled Sula to put more varietals in barrel, like Sauvignon Blanc for The Source and Chenin Blanc for the classic Reserve. The idea of fruity, light, and amicable wines has also convinced them to adapt to tank-fermented bubbles instead of their earlier, traditional-method renditions. The Sparkling Shiraz and now, the country’s first semi-sparkling Moscato, are the result. These consumer-friendly, no-nonsense, effortless bubbles have added more celebration to the space, more reasons to pop a bubbly. And Rajeev says that for sparkling wines and whites, there’s much more to come.
There’s so much happening in the Sula camp — with redesigning labels, promoting tourism, attractive products, growth and experimentation and exciting new liquids. It’s a testament to Sula’s confidence in the present and also a promise for the future of Indian wines.
Many years ago, I put forward a proposition that if I were to choose a wine under Rs 2000 from a retail shop, it would be an Indian wine. And now, with the growing accolades that Indian wines are garnering, I believe it’s just a matter of time before this proposition will hold true for the world, thanks to Sula’s leadership by example. As mentioned earlier, who do we expect the most from?
And the answer is, from the big guns naturally.
Sula gets an A+ on this report card.