Some research shows that a glass of wine a day is good for the heart. The stressful process of making it is probably not.
Winemaking is a romantic idea —the subject of many romantic films. As India’s professionals turn more intrepid, there is increasing interest in this niche space. But this is where the romance ends, and the hard work begins.
“About 20 people, mostly software professionals, come to see me every day,” says B. Krishna, managing director of the Karnataka Wine Board, a body set up to promote the state’s wine industry. “I mostly dissuade them,” says Krishna, who has a doctorate in horticulture, “because it is no easy task”.
It takes at least three years after the land has been bought to make wine and over five years to break even in the business. You need at least 20 acres of land and a long-term contract with a winemaker since wine grapes are not good enough to eat. Alternatively, one could invest Rs1-3 crore to set up a winery which can fill some 60,000-75,000 bottles a year.
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Karnataka, the second largest wine-consuming state in the country, is stepping up production to rival the No. 1 producer and consumer, Maharashtra, says Krishna. Karnataka—home to Grover Vineyards Ltd, the maker of one of the country’s first wine labels, Cabernet Sauvignon launched in December 1992—slashed licence fees (Rs50,000 per annum) to about a tenth (Rs5,000 per annum) in March 2007 and imposed a duty on out-of-state wines in late 2008.
Photo: Hemant Mishra / Mint
Over the last three years, nine new wineries have come up in state-desginated areas. Nandi Valley in the south, which includes parts of rural and urban Bangalore, Chikballapur and Kolar district, and Krishna Valley in the north, which includes Bijapur, Bagalkot and Belgaum, are popular wine regions. While some of these have started selling their wines through contract-farming arrangements, others are awaiting their first harvest.
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B.N. Nanjundaiah is one of the nine new entrepreneurs. A former chief adviser to the managing director of the Bangalore-based liquor company Khoday India Ltd, he decided to start out on his own in 2005. Inspired during his many business trips abroad, Nanjundaiah felt it was time Indians developed a taste for wine over traditional hard liquor. He hired a French wine consultant who identified 100 acres of land in Bijapur in north Karnataka, which he soon leased. With an investment of Rs15 crore, he set up Naka Spurt Pvt. Ltd and built the brands, maya and naka.
For the last two-and-a-half years, Nanjundaiah, who has a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy, has test-marketed his five wine labels in Bangalore. “I have got an extremely good response,” he says.
He has sold 5,000 cases, each containing 12 750ml bottles, so far. In April, he hopes to enter the markets of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, targeting sales of 7,000-8,000 cases a month. He believes he will be able to break even in three years. Ask him what makes him tick in a long-gestation business and he replies, “The concept of selling wine and building a brand excites me.”
So if you are inspired by Nanjundaiah and have the patience and the money, here are some tips on how to set up a vineyard. The process has been corroborated through conversations with winemakers, industry experts and farmers.
Get the plot
The grape will be determined largely by terroir, a French term for the combination of climate, soil type and topography. It is always better to buy a piece of land suitable for grape cultivation rather than grow on the land you already own. Buy the land only after studying the region’s microclimate—dry, cool climes nurture grapes. Low humidity and rainfall are preferred for healthier crops. Too much rainfall will push up the water content in the berries, diluting their fruity flavour.
Valleys are better than plain fields because water will not collect. A valley also has more breeze; aeration is essential for the berry to develop colour. Summer temperatures should not exceed 36 degrees Celsius as a scorching sun can rid the berries of flavour and aromas. Land prices typically depend on factors such as availability, demand, going rate, access to roads, water and electricity.
Virgin soils are better for grape cultivation as intensive farming leads to fertilizer residue and a polluted ground-water table. Avoid fertile, clayey, black-cotton soil as this would lead to too much yield. For wine grapes, the less the yield, the better the quality of the berry. Well-drained and sandy soil works well for grapes. Apart from the regular Ph and nutrient tests, also check for porosity to see how easily water permeates, and a soil structure test to determine the level of pebbles.
Check with neighbouring farmers on water availability and quality. Avoid growing grapes where the water is hard. Most vineyards in India depend on borewells to drip-irrigate their vines and taper the irrigation depending on rainfall.
Photo: Hemant Mishra / Mint
Fruit of labour
Most winemakers in India grow well-known French grape varieties such as Shiraz, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc since they are popular and easier to market. “In 15 acres, plant well-known French varieties. These have been successfully grown in India and are less risky,” recommends Abhay Kewadkar, business head (wines) and chief winemaker, director, Four Seasons Wines Ltd, part of the UB group.
In 3-4 acres, he adds, one could experiment with highly-regarded French grapes such as a Chardonnay or a Pinot Noir, which have so far not succeeded in India owing to the higher temperatures here. “If you crack it, the returns are high,” says Kewadkar, who has been instrumental in setting up vineyards for Grover and Four Seasons. In the last 1 acre, he recommends grapes from warmer climes which have not been tried much in India—Carmenere from Chile, Sangiovese from Italy or Tempranillo from Spain. This way, the risks can be minimized and the scope for higher profit remains.
The canopy system, which can range from a pergola to a trellis, is critical to giving the grape the right amount of sunlight. It also affects the vines’ yield, quality and susceptibility to diseases. For Indian conditions, a cordon is most suitable, says G.S. Prakash, principal scientist at the Bangalore-based Indian Institute of Horticultural Research. In a cordon arrangement, poles are erected in a straight line, with wires laid horizontally for the vines to climb on. “A horizontal arrangement limits yield, gives plenty of sunlight, enriching the colour of the berries, and makes them less prone to diseases,” says Prakash.
No walk in the park
This is, however, just the beginning. Maintaining a vineyard is a continuous process. Multiple books have been written on the viticulture practices to follow. In short, these include: Prune branches twice a year (October-November, March-April) to limit the yield, drip-irrigate adjusting to the rainfall received, plow the land to aerate the soil and watch out for pests. Grapes are typically harvested in March-April; the berries take 135-150 days to ripen from the last prune.
If you get all this right, celebrate with a glass of bubbly. If you intend to make your own wine, that’s another story altogether.