The traditional whiskey-drinker develops a taste for fine wine

The traditional whiskey-drinker develops a taste for fine wine
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First Published: Mon, Aug 13 2007. 12 04 AM IST

Style statement: Manu Chandra (left), the chef at Olive Beach restaurant in Bangalore. The restaurant, a three-hour drive away from the vineyards, recently hosted a fine-tasting evening. NYT photo (J
Style statement: Manu Chandra (left), the chef at Olive Beach restaurant in Bangalore. The restaurant, a three-hour drive away from the vineyards, recently hosted a fine-tasting evening. NYT photo (J
Updated: Mon, Aug 13 2007. 12 04 AM IST
Gundamakere, Karnataka: They used to grow millet in the lap of these gentle hills, and mulberry trees to eke out silkworms. Today, the land is home to Kapil Grover’s shiraz vines.
Grover’s father, Kanwal, fuelled by a stubborn passion, began growing wine grapes here in southern India as early as 1989, several years before the Indian economy shed its socialist garb and the moneyed classes multiplied. Last year, the winery produced 1.25 million bottles, double the production of two years ago.
Today, Grover watches the bittersweet fruits of globalization ripen. Luckily for him, the tiny Indian wine market is poised to grow by leaps as the country’s erstwhile whiskey-drinking elite cultivates a taste for wine.
At the same time, stiff competition looms: Prompted by complaints filed by the European Union and the US at the World Trade Organization, India reduced tariffs on imported liquor in July, potentially making a shiraz from Coonawarra, Australia, for instance, as affordable as Grover’s offering from Gundamakere.
Tariffs must be capped at 150% now, from rates that were as high as 550%.
Style statement: Manu Chandra (left), the chef at Olive Beach restaurant in Bangalore. The restaurant, a three-hour drive away from the vineyards, recently hosted a fine-tasting evening. NYT photo (J Adam Huggins)
While more than one-third of all Indians live on less than $1 (Rs40), a day, the country’s nose for wine, an outgrowth of new wealth and world travel among India’s swelling ranks of the rich, can be discerned in the wine clubs sprouting across India’s new-money citadels, the wine tours of the young Indian vineyards and the wider variety of wines now available at upmarket restaurants.
“Lately, it’s a style statement,” said Aslam Gafoor, a hospitality industry executive, at a wine tasting in Bangalore, a three-hour drive from these fields. Several Australian varietals were offered that evening at the restaurant, Olive Beach, with a ratings card for the tasters. The table had been loaded with Parma ham and cheddar, Kalamata olives and figs.
Wine is hardly a cheap thrill here. Olive Beach offers a 2003 Sassicaia for about $400 (and occasionally sells it). A 2005 Cakebread Cellars sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley goes for $100 at the Park Hotel.
Supermarkets are preparing to devote shelves to wine; right now, buying wine means jostling with the drinking masses at state-owned liquor shops. New Indian wineries are being established, including one by Seagram, the first foreign liquor firm to start producing wine here. Sula Vineyards has opened a tasting room on its estate in Maharashtra. And almost everyone, it seems, is homing in on the first-time Indian wine drinker with inexpensive and easy-on-the-palate offerings.
Grover, for instance, has a line of slightly sweeter wine that he calls Sante. “An easy name to pronounce,” he says, for his target audience of the pub-going younger set.
This year, Vijay Mallya, the baron of Kingfisher beer, will introduce Zinzi in two no-fuss varietals—red and white. The goal, company officials say, is to lure, not intimidate, young Indian professionals. “You talk about cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, they don’t understand the language,” said Abhay Kewadkar, the winemaker for Mallya’s Bangalore-based United Breweries (UB). “They are exposed to this western lifestyle. They want to be stylish. Wine fits that bill.”
UB clearly aims to play both ends of desire. It is not only producing wine in India, but also bringing in foreign wines—including its own. It bought a Loire Valley winery in France last year and, Kewadkar said, is shopping for others in California and South Africa. “Today,” he says, “there’s a market for everything.”
Grover hopes Indian lawmakers will raise state liquor taxes. Some already have, making sure that foreign wines remain substantially costlier than local ones. It helps that local politicians have a stake in some vineyards.
Aman Dhall, director of Brindco, a wine importer who owns a stake in Grover, says he hopes Indian wineries will mature and improve, so they can compete. “Indian wine producers will have to drive up quality,” he said.
In India, the wine market has grown at an enviable 30-40% over the last year, though it remains small, with sales of 600,000-800,000 cases last year, depending on whether wine made from table grapes is counted, according to wine producers and importers who track the numbers.
Put another way, Dhall cautions, what India consumes year-round is what Britain drinks during the Christmas season.
At a Sunday evening dinner at the Hyatt Regency held by the Delhi Wine Club, tandoori shrimp was paired with a 2001 Pommard. After a palate cleanser of melon and mint sorbet, a Santa Rosa cabernet accompanied baked paneer, or cottage cheese, for the vegetarians, tandoori lamb chops for the rest. The Chilean ambassador was the guest of honour. He has been known to recommend Viognier with the classic Punjabi dish, butter chicken.
Vijay Kumar Ahuja, a maker of printing materials, said he was drawn to wine when a friend, who happened to be sitting across the table this evening, served it at his daughter’s wedding eight years ago. The next year, Ahuja served it at his own sons’ weddings. Recently, he took a chance and presented a bottle of Barolo to a business client. He got a call from the client’s wife two days later, thanking him. Ahuja took that as a sign of changing times. Before, he would never think to offer anything but stronger stuff.
“What whiskey are you serving, that’s what mattered,” Ahuja recalled. “If you serve wine at a business dinner you feel you rate, you’re different from the others,” said Rakesh Bagai, a friend who also deals in printing materials. “Very few do it,” he said.
“A certain set,” Bindu Talwar piped in from the next chair. “The well heeled, the well travelled.” No matter the buzz about wine, Indian taste buds are notoriously hard to change, and Subhash Arora, the founder of the wine club, said he had given up trying to convert the “hard-core whiskey drinker”.
“At the end of the day, they want the nasha,” he rued.
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First Published: Mon, Aug 13 2007. 12 04 AM IST