Indian Wines

Name a country that’s far off the grape belt, the home of the scorching sun, and has a commercial winemaking history of, say, three decade, and is still winning accolades. That’s India. Our winemaking has grown from a toddler, and reached its adolescence. If it has transitioned as well is the question one asks.

Earlier in March, before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, I visited Nashik to learn what has changed over the past decade. At my first visit in 2009, the valley was busier than it’s today, and there were hopes and promises all around. The lure of subsidies was at the forefront of such energy and influx. And now, in 2020, the scenes were much different. The crowd has filtered off and only those with a stronger plan, intent, and product remain.

In the last decade, Indian wines have grown systematically at 33% per annum in India. Consumers are constantly educating themselves, professionals are better equipped, and producers are eying international benchmarks. How’s that happening? Here’s what I learnt in the valley:

INDIAN WINE TOURISM

This is the most impressive development over the decade. 

Back in 2009, the valley wasn’t a destination, rather there were commercial production setups. We barely encountered roads then. Our car was often stuck in swamps, and we walked to the wineries through slush. Some even poured us tank samples from whisky nips. Accommodation facilities or restaurants at wineries were unheard of. There was barely any motivation for consumers to visit them.

Now, in 2020, every winery has something to offer. Sula has championed their hospitality offerings. Their posh resorts, guided winery visits and tastings, a romantic balcony overlooking their plush vineyards, two restaurants, an amphitheatre, and much more has become a formidable destination. Vallonne Vineyards’s restaurant, Malaka Spice, is a well established address and their accommodation facility is highly admired. Grover Zampa is reinventing their space and coming up with an expansive hospitality wing. Soma and York Vineyards have amazing local restaurants too.

Sula claims 3-4 lac visitors at their cellar-doors each year, claiming about 3-4% of their total sales from their 1 million cases. We noticed local residents sipping wines at York’s tasting room till as late as 1030PM, much like at any other bar in the city. They sell 6-8% of their volumes at the winery itself. And Vallonne leads this trend with a whooping 45% sales on-site. The general consensus is that a winery without hospitality offerings will miss the boat.

Shailendra Pai, owner of Vallonne Vineyards, stresses that in the times to come they’d aim for over 60% of the sales to be drawn from their winery itself. It’s here that the true expression of wines is understood. Now, that’s a peek into how important an aspect it has become. And all that in a decade. 

RESEARCH AND REFORM

This was an on-going process which is finally bearing fruit.

In my talks with winemakers and producers a few years ago, they stressed on their constant need to educate the farmers. In Nashik, most wineries operate on contract-buying systems. Which means that the farmers take key viticultural decisions. They are a tad hesitant in trying new techniques and replacing varieties at times. We also noticed the brigade of young, and internationally-experienced winemakers on the scenes. They bring a vivacious vibes to the winemaking ideology and carry a global quality benchmark to aspire for.

Karan Vasani, Chief Winemaker at Sula Vineyards, shared that only 6% of the valley grows grapes for winemaking, and the rest is for table grape production. There’s a big difference in how two are grown and handled. For instance, it’s considered ideal to pump in tonnes of water for table grapes, while winemaking grapes require stress. He mentioned that this year Sula has induced water stress by 40% and the outcome is mighty promising. Further, table grapes are wrapped with newspapers while still on the vines, protecting them from excessive sunlight. Winemaking grapes, on the other hand, benefit from added sunlight. Introducing farmers with even such basic techniques often poses a monstrous challenge. However, the change is being noticed. And Karan is optimistic about this being visible in the 2020 vintage

Vallonne Vineyards has also changed their rootstocks, and altered the entire design of their vineyards. From the initial North-South orientation, they’ve moved to East-West, for better wind exposure. This has yielded in optimum disease management and general hygiene of crops. Owing to this, they do not spray any chemicals 2-3 months before harvests, resulting in healthier crop, vines, and neater wines.

Sanket Gawand, Winemaker at Vallonne, has gone a step ahead. In the valley, farmers burn their dried hay, husks, and canes, just before grape harvests. This is believed to induce some element of smoke in the resultant wines. We call this unwarranted aroma the Nashik Taint. He experimented with washing the grapes before crushing last season and the wines tasted much cleaner and sans the off-putting taint. A smaller operation like Vallonne can definitely adopt such practices. 

Yatin Patil of Reveilo Wines shares that viticulturists have established a better relationship with their vines now. They aim at maintaining a lower pH of under 3.6. Otherwise, vines tend to get tired. Especially, since in India’s tropical conditions there is no winter dormancy anyway. Which means vines keep working throughout their lives, yielding tired produce. They’ve also turned 100% vegan since their 2017 vintage. 

Kailash Gurnani, Winemaker at York Vineyards, has introduced micro-oxygenation in the winery. He is also planning on moving on to a different style of making rose sparkling wines

Grover Zampa is the first to import and start using concrete tanks, concrete eggs, foudres, and Georgian amphoras. These are techniques that alter the wine’s conditioning as compared to the usual stainless steel tanks and oak barrels.

VARIETAL PROMISES ON INDIAN SOILS

While Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc have always been the workhorses of the industry, there’s a constant lookout for the next big thing. Viognier had shown promise, so did Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo. They’ve firmly placed themselves as classics here. Malbec has failed due to the prevalent leafroll virus. Merlot has always been there but never crossed the borders of marginal quality. 

There’s so much more that the Indian soil is now accommodating though. Reveilo has always taken pride in their Grillo, and Nero d’Avola. Gewürztraminer is on the rise, especially after Fratelli Vineyards Vitae TRE where it paired with Muller Thurgau, and Chenin Blanc, and now Sula also experimenting with it. Grenache has made quite a remarkable progress and Sula has a commendable rose with it, and Grover Zampa has considerable plantings too. Mourvedre plantings are suggesting GSM Blends will be seen soon. 

The one grape to look out from the Indian turf now is Riesling. There are at least three definitive producers in the valley including Sula and Vallonne Vineyards. Mr. Pai stresses that Riesling is a notorious variety and acts pricey, demanding personalised attention, and commissioning smaller production. It’ll be a while before we see it taking a considerable share in the vineyards and in the markets. Albeit that, whatever little is there, is definitely praiseworthy. Sula adopted a tad off-dry avatar while Vallonne is dry, asture, and austere. 

Chardonnays are cashing in popularity. With Sula, Grover Zampa, and Reveilo producing oak-oriented, reserve-styled Chardonnays, and York crafting its first single-vineyard rendition, they have to be the biggest gainers in the last half-a-decade. Fratelli Wines in Akluj also had their run with a fantastic barrel fermented Chardonnay, which unfortunately is now defunct. Chardonnay, I believe, will be the biggest head turner in the near future, with reserve styled Cabernets, Shiraz, and Sangiovese in the reds.

Wineries are also more confident with trying newer styles. Be it Vallonne Vineyards’s Vin de Passerillage Chenin Blanc, or Sula trying appassimento with their Shiraz and Tempranillo, their semi-sweet and funky Sparkling Shiraz, or Grover Zampa’s barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Also, the term Cremant de Nashik was boldly seen on Sula’s sparkling wines, a brave statement at an emerging trend

VALUE FOR MONEY – INDIAN WINES REIGN

Winemaking has changed over the years. There’s more serious produce, that’s much neater and technically structured, studies and researches of years are now yielding results, and the infrastructure is commendable. The base quality of wines in India have noticed an exponential growth. 

One of the key factors is the radical change in consumers’ attitude. They’re always educating themselves, they’re more critical of what they drink, thus shifting the onus of crafting qualitative and character-driven wines back on the producers. Kailash Gurnani and Shailendra Pai concur that winemakers are taking their craft more seriously now than a decade ago. There’s a better understanding of their vines, weather patterns, soils, and, with time, that of the market. The sheer idea of having invested over a dozen vintages by nearly every producer now, and refining their produce on the way, shows that in the liquid. A consumer who’s still drinking the base-level wine is assured of receiving a much higher quality proposition in the bottle. There’s definitely more satiety. And as the base quality grows, it shows in premium wines too. And India earning medals and accolades at international shows, competitions, and challenges is a testament of this progress.

Happy Endings
Happy Endings

WHAT ARE WE SAYING

After this visit, I’m a convert and a firm advocate of Indian wines. There’s no aspect that hasn’t progressed and flourished. Be it viticulture, winemaking, picking the right varieties, experimentations, hospitality, or the confidence in the valley, India in its 25-30 years of history has taken a giant leap. And there’s a gigantic promise in its future. There’s no reason why not to see Indian wines with the same regard as that of any other country. And what a destination it has converted into. With families visiting in groups early in the day, and sipping and lazing at the cellar-doors till dawn, visiting a winery is a must-do for anyone visiting Nashik. As Michelin guide says, that if an experience deserves a special trip, it’s worth a three-star rating, I reckon Nashik is a deserving contender for a star as well.

First published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine in June, 2020

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