“Beaded bubbles winking at the brim...”In the wine cellar of The Grand Hotel in New Delhi, on a recent Friday evening, a lively debate ensued on the limpidity and complexity of the Albana di Romagna DOCG wine, a little-known Italian brand. Fifteen Delhiites, presided over by Subhash Arora, the president of the Delhi Wine Club, were on their third tasting of the night. In the course of those three drinks, they had moved rapidly from describing the wine as “very nice” and “good” to tossing around “hints of almond” and “very cloudy”, as if they were sommeliers straight from Bordeaux. This sight, though rare a few years back, is an increasingly common one across cities. Suddenly, everyone wants to be a wine expert, knows a wine expert or is a wine expert.“Beaded bubbles winking at the brim...”
Forget the Chinese calendar, 2007 is the Year of the Grape.
And for good reason. Even though the finance minister didn’t reduce duties of wine in the Budget, as many hoped, international companies continue to flood the market with new wines. Visiting European Union agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, recently told Mint the EU would continue to fight within the World Trade Organization for a drop in duty, calling the tax, which ranges between 200% and 280%, “unacceptable”.
Maharashtra and Haryana have now legalized the sale of wine in supermarkets and new vineyards are sprouting everywhere in South India. Plus, wine has become a social event, be it vineyard tours in Nashik, harvesting grapes in Austria or yoga classes with a wine aperitif.
Magandeep Singh, a sommelier and wine consultant based in Delhi, leads a whirlwind life educating Taj hotel managers on new wine lists, holding wine tasting courses for University of Texas management students or hosting private parties. “The Oxbridge Club, the Rotary Club, the YEO Club and the YEP Club host dinners and wine tastings constantly. We just had an event that was Rs40,000 a person for dinner and a wine tasting.”
Restaurants are also getting in on the wine game by offering packages to customers who want to learn more about wine. Tetsuma, a south Mumbai restaurant, has just started a monthly Wine & Dine night where diners will receive personal attention from a roving wine expert. Five wines will be offered for tasting and the expert will visit each table to explain different flavours.
But wine tastings and cheese parties are no longer enough for thirsty Indians. David Singh, the programme manager for Delhi-based Eco Adventures, partnered with Austrian wineries to create a vineyard tour at harvest time for curious wine drinkers.
He says that the company plans to offer more tours and will introduce travel plans in which wine country farmers in India and Austria can participate in exchange programmes. He hopes to see this pan out over the next year.
Local wineries are also joining the tourism field. Sula Vineyards, a Nashik-based winery, hosted two weekends in February with the Taj Hotel Group for a wine weekend package at the Taj Residency Nashik and tours of the vineyards through the day. This was the first year the Taj hosted the event and it plans to continue the practice next year, too, during harvesting season.
Arnab Mukherjee, a vice-president of Ad Factors, found out about the weekend from the Taj’s newsletter and signed up. Groups of 10 couples took part in grape-picking contests, vineyard tours and a sit-down dinner with wine. “For the first time, I realized how a perfect pairing happens,” says Mukherjee.
The tours will soon include more activities than just drinking and feasting. Rajeev Samant, the CEO of Sula, says he plans to institute wine and yoga courses some time this year after the vineyard’s resort, currently under construction, is completed. He says a New York Times article about yoga and wine retreats in California encouraged the idea. “We’ll have massage and meditation courses as well, all different ways to relax on the vineyard.”
Sejel Khajuria, a London-based yoga instructor, saw the same article as Samant and is in talks with Sula to host courses this spring on the vineyard grounds. She plans to organize classes at the vineyards open to the public and to also create week-long retreats that mix yoga classes with wine education. “A student once said that he gets the same feeling after a class of yoga that he does from a couple of glasses of wine. There is that same feeling of being completely relaxed.”
And, despite the international disappointment over the continuation of high import taxes, a rash of wine firms from around the world are clamouring to enter the Indian wine market. Magandeep says there are at least 700 companies entering the Indian market in the next few months. “Twin Eagles, Opus One and Cakebread just arrived, and Masi, Drappier and Bianchi are coming. I can’t even keep track of them all.”
Masi’s sales director, Alessandra Boscaini, says the winery hopes to arrive in India within the next few months. “It is a very important market; it is booming in terms of wine.”
Boscaini says the company will begin sales in restaurants, hotels and specialized wine shops and she does not mind the competition from other imported wineries. “It shows that the market there is really interested in wine.”
The interest is not just in importing wines to India. Small wineries have opened in southern India and more are likely to open soon. Govinder Singh owns land near Fresno in California, where he grows grapes and sells them to Gallo and Mondavi wineries, two of the world’s largest wine producers. At a wine tasting in Delhi, he confides, “The possibilities are very interesting. I am definitely thinking about starting a local vineyard here.”
Plus, new retail opportunities have opened across Maharashtra and Haryana. Both states have legalized the sale of wine at grocery stores and, in late February, Sula celebrated its entry into Haiko, a supermarket in Mumbai. Next month, the winery plans to expand its sales to Big Bazaar and Hyper City.
And Vijay Mallya’s United Breweries group has kept busy purchasing international wine companies, such as the Bouvet Ladubay label, in his push for a Kingfisher wine. The company is meant to set up a string of wine shops and pubs, opening next year, that would sell his label.
The most convenient way of getting wine, of course, is simply having it delivered directly to the door by wine clubs sprouting up around India. The just-launched Wine Society of India, based on the US version, has a board of advisors which chooses six bottles of wine, creates tasting notes and ships the wine to members’ homes four times a year. For around Rs7,000-10,000 a shipment, its site promises the club will take you on “a journey of discovery leading you to the best wines from all over the world.”
Dr. Sanjay Kaushik, the gregarious chairman at Paramont Group India , could not be happier with the wine rush. At a recent wine tasting, he well speaks for many as he bellows across the lawn: “A glass of red wine for health! A glass of red wine for the road! A glass of red wine for anything !”