When Ranjit Dhuru, the owner of Chateau d’Ori winery, walked through his gently sloping vineyards in Nashik in February, the harvest was in full swing. “Already sweet,” he said, nibbling from tight, healthy bunches of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. “These will be ready to pick soon, in another week.”
Eight years ago, Dhuru, who made his fortune in the software business, bought land outside Nashik, about 161km northeast of Mumbai, a city that has become the centre of India’s rapidly expanding wine industry.
This year, with the help of a consulting oenologist from Bordeaux, France, Dhuru expects to produce about 300,000 bottles of white and red wines. By next year, he estimates that a million bottles will bear the Chateau d’Ori label.
The aggressive optimism of entrepreneurs such as Dhuru is easy to understand. In Maharashtra, where Nashik is, more than 40 wineries are in varying stages of development. Government officials say that investment in wine increased by 74% over the last year.
“In the next 10 years there will be 300 million upwardly mobile Indians who can afford wine and for whom it will be a lifestyle choice,” Dhuru says. “A lot of them will be drinking Indian wines.”
Aman Sharma, the corporate food and beverage director for the Taj hotel chain, agrees. “There is already a large population eager for wine,” he says. In 2006, the annual per capita consumption of wine in India was estimated at about a tablespoon, but that droplet represents a fourfold increase since 2000.
Most wine made in India is consumed in the country. And, as wine publications, wine clubs, competitions and tasting dinners have taken hold, Indian wines with notable finesse are becoming available and gradually being appreciated.
Grover Vineyards La Réserve, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz blend from one of India’s top wineries, in another wine region near Bangalore, is among the country’s most sought after wines. The 2005 is rich and smoky with hints of roasted peppers. Its alcohol is listed at only 12% on a label that proudly states: “Made in collaboration with Mr Michel Rolland, Bordeaux, France.” Rolland is one of the best-known wine consultants in the world.
Indus wines, the name the Terroir India company uses on its labels, are made in a spanking new white stucco California-style boutique winery atop a hillside overlooking Lake Mukni, south of Nashik. The two-year-old winery has just started planting a vineyard and buys its grapes from local farmers, who until recently grew table grapes, still the biggest crop in the Nashik area. The fruit and alcohol of Indus’ fresh-tasting Sauvignon Blanc are well integrated and the 2007 Shiraz exhibits restrained richness.
Indian wineries have to cope with challenges that do not exist in wine regions elsewhere. For starters, the grapes are pruned in September and picked in February and March to avoid the stifling heat and the monsoon. On the plus side, the vintners can plan to harvest according to the ripeness of the grapes without having to worry about unseasonal cold snaps and rain.
The grapes are usually gathered by migrant workers under floodlights, from 3am to around 9am, before it gets too hot. “Labour is not an issue in India,” Dhuru says. At his winery, just-picked grapes are kept in refrigerated trucks until they are crushed.
Dhuru poured several of his wines for visitors in his sparsely furnished four-bedroom guest house which overlooks the vineyards.
His 2007 Chenin Blanc was smooth and nutty, not sweet, with good acidity, but too alcoholic at 14.7%. Dhuru says, “We’re in a hot country and next year we’ll have to keep the alcohol in check.” His Sauvignon Blanc, in a slightly oaky California fumé blanc style, was another big wine.
Fresh-tasting Sauvignon Blancs and Chenin Blancs, sometimes with a slightly sweet finish, are typical of India’s whites. They are good complements for seafood and for vegetarian dishes such as bhindi masala, which is braised spiced okra, or saag paneer, which is cottage cheese in spinach sauce.
Chateau d’Ori’s red wines, such as the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend, offered lush fruit and hints of bell pepper and turned out to be a suitable partner for meats and breads seared in a tandoor. The 2007 Merlot was soft and elegant, but a simpler wine.
Many of India’s wineries produce Shiraz and Shiraz-Cabernet blends. These often exhibit earthy, vegetal aromas and flavours along with bold fruit. When young, which is the way most of them are sold, they can hold their own against dishes seasoned with cumin, mustard seed, fenugreek and other musky flavours.
Sula Vineyards, established in 1996 on the outskirts of Nashik, is the brand most often on wine lists. Although Nashik has a reputation as the Napa of India, Sula is one of just a handful of wineries designed to receive visitors, with a tasting room, tours and a guest house.
Chateau Indage, near Pune in Maharashtra, is 25 years old and, with production at 1,000,000 cases, is said to be the biggest winery in the country. It was the first to make a sparkling wine.
Although bottles from India’s smaller wineries are rarely exported, Sula and Chateau Indage wines are sold at Winedelight.com and Winebuys.com
And if there is a fast track wine industry, can olive oil be far behind?
“Actually, the guy who fabricates my stainless steel tanks in Nasik is looking into that,” Dhuru says. “He has some land and is planning to import Italian seedlings.”
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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