A new wine producer’s primary task is to understand the relationship between the vines, climate cycles, and the potential of the land at disposal. In India, this gets even tougher, simply because we’re off the universal grape belt of 30-50 North/South of the equator. Conventional viticultural principles don’t apply to our geography. Yet, with every passing vintage, Indian winemakers are understanding this trio better, allowing themselves an ever-growing confidence to experiment. In my recent trip to Nasik, I noticed one such continuous experiment finally bearing fruits. It’s the oak-oriented Chardonnays which India has been working on for 20 years now. They not only look most exciting and diverse, but also hold a massive promise for the future which we are yet to realise.
INDIAN CHARDONNAYS BEGIN WITH VINTAGE WINES
Unlike in other countries, growing Chardonnay wasn’t easy in India. Majority of this had to do with the psyche of the farmers. To begin with they were shy to experiment and, even though some agreed, they weren’t very happy with the results. The yields were negligible with marginal quality, and, of course, there wasn’t much demand in the first place. This burdened the winemakers to buy crops at enormous rates, making it a financial and strategic nightmare to fail at.
However, Yatin Patil, Director of Vintage Wines, recalls the economic risk, yet allowed his passion for the varietal to reign. He was undeniably the first one to take the grape to farm in 2000. Their 2005 harvest became India’s first varietal, unoaked Chardonnay. And with the arrival of new oak barrels in December that year, their 2006 crush gifted India its first barrel-fermented Chardonnay. It’s an unignorable personality with exuberant tropical fruitiness with a backbone of a strong oak accent, overall making a brilliant treat for the palate. And, let me boast, it still remains an epitome of an Indian winemaker’s courage. With Reveilo’s Reserve Chardonnay, India definitely marked the arrival of a wine-style that’ll be followed for the decades to come. Vintage Wines today solely uses Italian clones and self-grows all their Chardonnay crops.
IN COMES FRATELLI WINES
The Italians were to take notice of this, and Fratelli Wine’s dynamic winemaker duo of Alessio Secci and Piero Masi did just that. They planted their first Chardonnay vines in 2007 in Motewadi and the following year at Garwar. They too had to begin on their own. Alessio developed the vines at their winery’s site before passing them to the farmers in 2015. To offset the initial financial risk farmers feared, they not only paid them a high per kilo price, but also offered a minimum guarantee plan, which worked in their favour.
Piero proudly submitted that he found their soils’ mineral characteristics similar to that of Burgundy. It moved them to introduce Burgundian clones to the sites. Alessio adds that it’s the minerality of their sites, combined with the highly qualitative clones that makes all the difference. And, probably, that’s why there’s no one that produces as many shades of Chardonnays in the country as they do.
They initiated oak integration with their iconic Blue Label Chardonnay in the initial year, however it’s now a virgin, unoaked expression. The urge for a completely oak-oriented Chardonnay was still bubbling somewhere in the back of their creative minds. This gave birth to their French oak barrel-fermented Vitae Chardonnay, which gained instant attention. I remember promptly lauding its quality of oak integration, lees influence, and minerality. In the times to come, the Vitae range, which also had a single vineyard Sangiovese, and an aromatic blended wine with Muller Thurgau and Gewürztraminer became a symbol of gutsy experimentation from the house. However, it has lately been delisted to make space for a new identity.
Its juices now contribute to the highly-regarded J’noon and JCB47 labels, born from the collaboration between Fratelli Wines, the Italian duo, and the enigmatic Burgundian, Jean Claude Boisset. It’s a limited release, small batch production which was destined for international markets alone, with a humble allocation to India as well.
As Alessio confirms, “JCB takes the lead in the blending process and aims at bringing a taste of their own culture. He’s been instrumental at helping the label going in the Burgundy direction, which was Piero’s founding idea with the varietal.” When asked why JCB would invest in Indian Chardonnays, Alessio points out that it reminds him of the Burgundy soil from back home. Now, J’noon uses a 60-40 blend of barrel-fermented to stainless steel Chardonnay, while JCB47 is a high-quality bubbly with a base of 100% barrel-fermented wine with a long 24 months lees ageing. There’s a J’noon red as well, however, it’s the white sibling that’s captured the attention since its first introduction of the 2016 vintage which only produced 2600 bottles.
MAGIC OF HAMPI HILLS – A KRSMA OF SORTS
From Nasik to Akluj, the next Chardonnay crops were being planted in the then yet-to-be-celebrate Hampi Hills in Karnataka. KRSMA Estates planted their Chardonnay vines in 2009 which were first bottled in the 2013 vintage. They envisioned the combined influences of this virgin terroir, cool resting nights, and the unique soil type yielding a commendable expression. Vintage and Fratelli Wines had already arrived on the scene, KRSMA had taken notice of their potential. Krishna Prasad Chigurupati, owner of KRSMA Estates, strongly believed that Hampi Hills’ Chardonnay could create a niche of its own.
The initial vintages aimed at displaying the promise of the fruit, sans the wood. They kept toying with ripeness levels and winemaking styles before, in 2017, their Chardonnay interacted with oak for three months. It was partially their curiosity and growing confidence, partially the changing consulting winemaker. I remember tasting a very young expression of the wine where the liquid and oak were yet to become a single entity. A few cellaring years later, it yielded a beautifully harmonious amalgamation. Unfortunately though, the promise lasted only as long. After five successful vintages, vines demanded more nutrients than the soil could offer. In a hard decision, KRSMA Estates had to uproot the varietal. It was one of those styles that held enormous promises, but had to see an early departure.
YORK & SULA JOINS THE PARTY
While this was happening in Hampi, back in Nasik the two neighbours York Wines and Sula Vineyards were gearing up for their expressions. Winemaker and the creative genius behind York’s wines, Kailash Gurnani, believed that making a good Chardonnay is a virtual pat on your back in the winemaking world. And his desire to make something beyond the famous whites and reds in India – Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon – drew him closer to the varietal. He realised the potential in Indian Chardonnays during the trials at Chandon India.
He planted his first Chardonnay vines in 2014 and increased plantation the following year. 2018 was Kailash’s first crush of the varietal, which was released as India’s first single vineyard Chardonnay, called H-Block. The name comes from the section on his plantation where the vines were planted. The H-Block stands out from other oak-influenced Chardonnays in India. It isn’t a typical heavily oak-influenced wine, nor would I qualify it as a fruit-forward one. It accentuates the plot’s expression and its minerality stands out amongst all the whites in the valley. It’s primarily a stainless steel fermented wine with some portion fermenting in used French oak barrels.
As he explains, “oak in wines is like salt in food. A winemaker must only use it enough to enhance the flavours. The aim is to make an overall harmonious and memorable recipe, not to glorify its parts”. 4000 bottles of H-Block were released in the first vintage and have now grown to 6700 in 2020. I’ve always lauded Kailash’s winemaking style and philosophy, it has a minimalistic approach and a strong confidence for experimentation. Though H-Block is a single vineyard wine, he would neither like it to be marketed as one, nor as a reserve wine. He sees a growing potential in the style, and, with demands soaring, it may not remain a wine of single vineyard origin.
While returning from the trip, I wasn’t surprised that I only picked Chardonnays to bring along. At the helm of it was Sula Vineyards Dindori Reserve Chardonnay. Karan Vasani, Sula’s chief winemaker, has done an excellent job of creating a consumer-friendly wine that has exuberant fruit, balanced oak integration, packaged under an eye-catching label, at a price point that allows the denizens to take a chance. Not only was this to be their first tryst with the varietal, but to label it under their iconic Dindori range must’ve taken some determination.
Karan shares their first vintage was in 2018 with about 1000 cases in production. It was exclusively sold at the winery. From there, the confidence soared, and now the production has grown five folds. In its introductory vintage, they brought new French oak barrels, hence only some portion went through barrel fermentation. In the following vintages, lesser new oak is used, with additions of a few experimental American oak barrels. Whatever their experiments be, they seem to be fairing out well. I have my eyes set on their future expressions for sure.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Indian Chardonnays are definitely beyond their teething stages. The promise is immense and winemakers are backing their experiments through the growing demand for the varietal. Piero Masi suggests that it can be the grape of the future, as long as guaranteed quality is achieved within a price range. Fratelli has done well with four different expressions. But he does add that it’s still challenging to grow good Chardonnay in India. He suggests holding a strong control in the vineyards. “Fratelli initially produced 13,000 bottles of their Chardonnay Blue Label, which now has grown to 100,000 bottles!!” says Alessio
Yatin Patil confidently says that Chardonnay quantities have definitely grown the most for them. And there’s further scope. He opines the key is to keep experimenting, understanding the varietal better, and aligning with consumers’ ever-altering palates. In India, fruit forward wines with some complexity work best. The moment they get too oaky, consumers move away. Thus, it’s imperative to understand and adapt to changes, and not try to imitate an international style.
Karan Vasani is pleasantly surprised with the response, he didn’t anticipate Chardonnay will be an easy sell. Now he’s confident about putting his money on it as the style for the future. He sees a magnitude of versatility in the category and suggests consumers must try the full spectrum. He’s noted a growth in Chardonnay plantations and considers it a safe varietal to grow. He does add that Chardonnay crops are more expensive than any other white varietal being grown in India, justifying the higher price tag.
WHAT I THINK?
I’m a convert. Indian Chardonnays is where I’m putting my bets. Indian palates have definitely evolved and gotten refined. Our consumers have become smarter with their choices, and more inquisitive about what they’re drinking. They wish to learn the story behind their liquids, and Indian Chardonnays definitely have a story worth narrating. I see Indian Chardonnays being an excellent vehicle through which Indian palates can adapt to drinking oaky whites, and lean towards experimentation. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Indian Chardonnays picking awards and becoming a definitive style globally. India is seen as a hot country, and our chardonnays may just shatter that image and open minds of international drinkers as well. Much like our sparkling wines, and oaked Cabernets (blends) I’m sure to carry a few bottles of desi Chardonnays on my international tasting trips, with utter pride and passion.
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