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The Good Life

It's time to savour Indian wines
The domestic wine industry may be nascent for sure, but some desi brands are slowly making their mark

Nikhil Agarwal

Getting into the wine business was pure chance. I was sitting next to someone who got a call from Sula asking her if she would like to join the sales team. All I heard was “wine company” from the person besides me, when I grabbed the phone and said, “I don’t know who you are but I would like to join.” I got the job the next day and what followed was a spate of vineyards visits, international trade shows and countless tastings, all of which got me so wrapped up in the world of wine that I could not think of doing anything else at all. 

The world of wine is enormous and fascinating; especially in India, because if you pay attention you can see the industry and the culture for wine develop right in front of you. To say that the quality of Indian wines has improved dramatically over the past few years would be a gross understatement. It’s not just one or two wineries that have raised the game, instead it’s the leading wineries of India that have somehow — through a collective conscious — decided that pushing levels of quality is the way forward. I am probably one of the biggest fans of the Indian wine industry. I have been lucky enough to be a part of it since the time I joined Sula Vineyards almost 15 years ago at the age of 22.

The Indian wine industry has had many reasons to go through this metamorphosis. For one, there are far more wineries than before, which has created a competitive market scenario, forcing wineries to raise their game in order to succeed. The second — and the most important, in my opinion — reason is that consumers in India have evolved. Not only are there more consumers of wine but they are also more discerning consumers. You can’t just plonk down a bottle and expect it to sell. Wineries constantly need to innovate to keep consumers engaged. 

Three, the wine industry in India is very young, and we’re learning every year. We’re figuring out which parcels of land have better soils and climates for wine production and understanding which grape can succeed. We have also brought in or developed the right talent and infrastructure to produce world-class wines. The use of oak barrels to add complexity to red wine and to some whites is now commonplace. I’m not saying the industry has got it together just yet — there are many improvements to be made at every stage of the business, whether it is grape-growing, wine-making or even if it is selling
and marketing. 

In true spirit

In a span of roughly three decades, the Indian wine industry has achieved a lot. It isn’t easy to change the habits of a drinking population that can’t see beyond spirit. Every wine producer knows it’s not only about creating a brand but also about creating a culture.

It is common for people, even some of the savviest wine consumers, to dismiss Indian wines for their imported counterparts. This generalisation needs to stop. Indian wine is at par with — or certainly better than — some of the wine produced worldwide. Sometimes people pay #2,000 or more for a bottle of imported wine, thinking that the price or country of origin denotes quality. 

While the country of origin might make a difference, not everything produced in any part of the world is good or even comparable with Indian wine. The price in India for the imported stuff is made up largely of taxes — what with India applying the highest duties in the world on wine — so price cannot be a measure of quality. Consumers need to be more aware.

There are a number of specific wines that deserve a mention — these are the finest examples of quality that India is producing as of now, that are being appreciated not only here but are gaining recognition at wine competitions in India and across the globe. Yes, Indian wines are winning awards in competitions held in London, the US and in Asia. Indian wines are also exported all over the world, even to those countries that produce a large number of high-quality wines themselves.

Indian wine is dominated in terms of volume by two to three wineries, with the rest of the wineries combined taking the rest of the pie. But in terms of quality, the scenario is not so polarised. There are smaller brands that are producing exceptional quality wine but have not been around long enough or don’t have the marketing muscle or marketing brilliance that the more established wine brands have. What’s also interesting is that exceptional quality is being achieved in all wine styles as well — it’s not just the use of barrel, there is more depth to wine-making now than ever before.

Brand pull

Owned by HCC, Charossa has created an exceptional Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Reserve Tempranillo. The Tempranillo is a breakthrough and this wine demonstrates just what experimentation with grape varieties can achieve. A blend of Tempranillo and Shiraz is phenomenal. 

Another fine wine by Grover’s called Chêne, which means oak in French, gives an exquisite experience every time you roll it in your mouth. Apart from Chêne, Grover’s is also known for its La Reserve, which has been a long-standing quality Indian wine that one can safely bet on. Myra Vineyards, a winery that I am closely associated with, makes outstanding Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Reserve Shiraz. Myra’s new wine called Misfit that’s about to be launched is even better.

It’s encouraging to see that Indian sparkling wines have now found a good marketplace in the country, thanks to Moet Hennessy launched by Chandon. Also, I’m hoping that Chandon’s success will pave the way for more international brands to set up wineries in India, bringing in with them their expertise. Another sparkling wine called Casablanca is one to watch out for — well-priced, very crisp and delicious. York winery in Nashik produces a barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc that gives this grape variety more weight. Its newly-launched sparkling wine, with its low alcohol strength, is a delight and its flagship red Arros is pure indulgence.

Fratelli’s, the first to start wine-making at Akluj, is another winery that produces wines with pure finesse. Its Vitae, Sangiovese Bianco, Chardonnay and Sette are outstanding wines. Another wine that is turning heads is Rosé. A selection of super Reserve reds from grape varieties such as Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon makes it pure delight. 

However, I think a winery that has truly understood the Indian palate completely is Reveilo. While its Sangiovese and Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Reserve Shiraz have a steady following, its Late Harvest Chenin Blanc is sweet decadence. Oakwood, a winery whose products are yet to be made available, produces an exceptional Sauvignon Blanc.

When discussing one of the finest domestic wines, Sula deserves a mention. One of the biggest market players in this segment, it constantly innovates with the wine-making. If I had to choose two from its massive portfolio, it would be Sula’s Riesling and its solid Dindori Shiraz. 

With new entrants such as Krsma and Pernod Ricard trying to change things around to produce better quality wine over the past few years, we can expect a rich wine culture to evolve in the country. Remember, we are at a nascent stage at present and we have reached this far in such a short period of time. And if India’s short vinous history has given us what we have today, then the future looks very promising. 

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