The Obamas’ first state dinner was in honor of Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh and his wife. As you may recall, the White House wine steward tried to start an international conflagration by pairing a high-alcohol Grenache with green curry prawns.
So with the return leg of the India-America state visits, marking what the leaders hailed as “the defining partnership of the 21st century,” the eyes of wine geeks in the two countries were on the menu for New Delhi. When the moment came to raise a ceremonial glass, Prime Minister Singh did so–with juice. It turns out that no alcohol is served at state dinners in India, but that didn’t stop a local wine personality from chiding the President, encouraging her to uncork Indian wine on such occasions.
On his blog, Subhash Arora added, “Mercifully, they are all allowed to drink in private.” On Twitter, after she commented on the event, I asked Chicago-based sommelier Alpana Singh what she thought the prime minister opened behind closed doors. She replied, “Oh! That’s easy – if he’s a true Singh it’s Johnnie Walker – Blue, Black or red in descending order of preference.”
While China has recently caught the attention of the wine world with eye-popping sales, India has yet to break out. Despite having a population over one billion, the Indian market uncorked only 17 million bottles, amounting to only a sip per year per inhabitant. (China was about eight times that amount.) Interestingly, about three-quarters of the wine consumed in India is red and an even higher percentage is made domestically.
reduced sized crop of AP/Saurabh Das image
While you can always drink wine while it’s hot, as Indians are starting to do, how do you make wine in the heat of India?!
India’s climate does not allow grapevines to become dormant, as is typical in winter. With the opportunity for two harvests, growers prune back vines to collect a single harvest per year, allowing for more concentrated fruit. Using the mild, dry winters as the growing season, harvest occurs from February to March as in the Southern Hemisphere. During the forced dormant months of April through September, the heat of summer precedes monsoon rains that nourish the vines.
High altitudes in foothill areas around Nasik and Bangalore create moderate temperatures conducive to wine grape cultivation. Maharashtra state is home to over 40 wineries, with half near the holy city of Nasik, 80 miles northeast of Mumbai. At 2000′ altitude, the wine temperature fluctuations between day and night in Nasik allow for additional flavor development.
Nasik’s viticulture began with excellent table grapes for eating, which garnered high prices due to cool temperatures and excellent water sources. Now contract grape farmers supply the burgeoning wine production with vinifera grapes such as Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Zinfandel, but Thomson Seedless still finds its way into many bottles. Limits on agricultural land holdings require wineries to rely on farmers who lack proper training and tend to over-irrigate.
While much sweet, high-alcohol wine still exists, modern winemaking has arrived in India with gusto. Large, air conditioned wineries are being built at an alarming rate equipped with French oak barrels, temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, and pneumatic presses. A big mystery is the use of gyropalettes, which substitute capital for labor in a country where labor is so cheap that they pay someone to press the button and give you a ticket number when you enter the Air India office. Instead of having a person come along and “riddle” the bottles of sparkling wine as they mature in the cellars, producers have invested in gyropalettes to do this task automatically (someone talked this winery into buying the bridge…).
Flying winemaker Michel Rolland has consulted for Grover Vineyards in Bangalore since 1995 and other foreign consultants present their solutions to various wineries for hefty fees. Winemakers learn to compensate for varying fruit by acidifying, adding enzymes for color, and making other adjustments with no regulatory controls. As site selection, viticulture and experience improves, Indian wine has both the potential and the market to thrive. The next hurdle will be temperature controlled shipping and storage.
Wines to watch for:
Grover Vineyards: the 2004 “La Reserve” (about $20; find this wine) carries the modern Bordeaux influence of Rolland and pairs nicely with masala lamb chops; I enjoy the dry Shiraz rosé (find this wine) and Cab/Shiraz blend for $10 – $15. (find this wine)
Sula Vineyards: the crisp, fresh and zingy Sauvignon Blanc for $12 is a must try, especially with a Kerala fish curry. Sula is owned by Stanford grad Rajeev Samant who is on his way to making Sula India’s top brand. (find this wine)
Reveilo: gets my vote for most promising winery and will be imported to the US soon; I tasted a great range of Sauvignon Blanc, CS, Shiraz and a late harvest Chenin there.
Mountain View is another up and coming quality producer, yet to be imported to the US.
Finally, if you plan to visit Nasik, I recommend a stay at Renaissance Winery‘s guest house with a European restaurant and wine bar next to the villa-like winery to sip their fresh Chenin Blanc. More photos and captions after the jump. Read more…
This postcard from India is by Dini Rao, formerly in the wine department at Christie’s, and currently finishing her MBA at Harvard Business School.
My wine experience during my stay in India was eye-opening. If you told me five years ago that Indians would put down their bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label for a glass of Shiraz, I would laugh. After spending the first portion of my trip in the southern city of Chennai (formerly Madras), my concept of an Indian wine shop was bleak: a wine stand (see the first photo above) with men standing around in lungis all day, taking shots of “wine” i.e. liquor or port.
Then I arrived in Mumbai where swank hotels and restaurants serve Veuve yellow label for Rs. 2000 or $50 a glass. Top wineries attract Indians eager for tours with beautiful tasting rooms (see the second photo). As if welcoming me to the city, the current issue of Time Out Mumbai featured “Wine: Why we’re all drinking it,” a 12 page spread about wine bars, producers and sommeliers around town. According to a Newsweek International online article, Bollywood, which just graduated to showing its first scandalous on screen kiss on the lips, features stars sipping wine in recent movies.
Wine, while trendy, also seems to have serious takers. A friend publishes the wine magazine Sommelier India that circulates to India’s growing wine enthusiasts. When invited to witness a Wine Society of India tasting, I quickly dropped my previous plans to see Stephen Spurrier speak to 500 assembled Indian guests (see photo).
India’s wine future seems bright. Euromonitor predicts 100% growth from the 9 million bottles currently consumed in India over the next five years. Consumption per capita is low in the billion-person country, but concentrated, as Mumbai drinks 40% of wine by value and will continue as one of the highest growing markets. No wonder the WTO, led by the EU and US, pressures India to change the import duties on foreign wines which currently reach up to 550%.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of India’s wine culture is its own wine production. More on this in Wine in India, Part 2.
George Bush will take a 13 hour plane trip to New Delhi today to spend three days in the world’s largest democracy. If the Teetotaler-in-Chief stopped to look at the Indian wine industry, what would he find?
Most importantly, that the industry has friends in high places. The Minister of Agriculture, Sharad Pawar (photo right), is a grape grower who even has a the Sharad seedless grape named after him. He is a champion of the view that wine is a drink of moderation and recently tried to get wine classified as food and be as easy to sell as soft drinks. His efforts were rebuffed. However, his home state of Maharashtra has doubled tariffs on imported wine (states with the ability to add tariffs!), making local grape sources more attractive and more difficult for wineries to pass off Chilean wine as their own.
Viv Menon recently won a Geoffrey Roberts Award to travel to India to examine the wine industry. In his comments on jancisrobinson.com, Menon calls Grover‘s wines “quite incredible.” Michel Rolland is a consultant. Indage has opened a wine bar on the premises with no beer or spirits available and she is surprised to find some people there have traveled over an hour for a glass of wine. He describes Sula as “the slickest of all in terms of marketing” and that they have good viticultural practices to boot. The most promising sign for consumers he writes is that the Oberoi hotel in New Delhi now has an enoteca.
While wine gets frequent mention in the Bible promoters of wine in India can find support even in the Bhagwat Gita: “Yea! those who learn The threefold Vedas, who drink the Soma-wine, Purge sins, pay sacrifice — from Me they earn Passage to Swarga.”
Wow, the idea of an endless harvest would really revolutionize the wine industry. Now to just try something besides Muscat! Story from India news
The area [Cumbum] is a major centre for grapes production with 4000 small farmers producing over 90,000 tonnes of Muscat grapes, locally known as “paneer dhrakshai”, and about 10,000 tonnes of Thomson seedless grapes.
The unique feature of the grapes grown here is that they are harvested throughout the year, as compared to other areas where the grapes growing season ends with the summers.