Why is Indian wine so bad? Now that is a question guaranteed to evoke ire, but I have to confess, I didn’t ask it. It was asked by a journalist friend of mine—an Englishman who had spent time in Napa and then relocated to Hong Kong. We were a bunch of food-and-wine writers gathered together in Hong Kong. We were doing a blind-tasting of Asian wines, an altogether sorry exercise since we could not come up with a single bottle that our group could rave about.
To be fair, I have to say that this was a highly biased group. It was predominantly Western food-and-wine writers who were exposed to the best wines of the world. Theirs was a palate raised on the finest French and American wines. Even admitting a wine from Chile was a fine concession for this group. India and China were not even on their radar. And so we argued. Japanese sakes are rice wines, but they aren’t strictly wines. China has a couple of players in the wine market—Dynasty and Great Wall Wineries—but their wines turned out to be too sweet. Huadong winery has a couple of decent wines, but none passed muster with the group. And then came the question after a couple of sips of different Indian labels: Why are they so bad?
If you talk to wine aficionados in India, they are, of course, offended by the question. A card-carrying member of the Bangalore Wine Club immediately shot me an email listing all the awards that Indian wines had won, how one label won Decanter magazine’s award for the best New World wine and how an increasing number of litres were exported to France and Italy. If the French are willing to buy Indian wine, then how can it be bad, is the oft-repeated question.
Abhay Kewadkar, who used to run Grover Wines before moving on to United Breweries’ wine division, is more temperate in his opinion. He blames poor quality on lack of knowledge of storage conditions. He talks about visiting a five-star hotel where the wines were kept haphazardly within the kitchen. They didn’t even have a wine cooler, he says.
The Indian wine industry—at least in its modern avatar—is still in its womb compared to, say, France, with its 1,600-year-old wine tradition. Even Napa with all its natural and economic advantages—abundant sunshine, lack of cold-snaps and a wealthy clientele— took 50 years to get where it is today. India has to deal with a pesky climate, touchy economics and, worst of all, erratic consumers. Consider: Indians drink a measly 46,000 cases of wine annually and a whopping 37 million cases of brandy. The big wineries, Chateau Indage, Grovers and Sula, are trying to change all that, to crack the market, both in India and abroad.
Indian wineries make a few good wines, but I find that the quality swings wildly even within the same label and vintage. I’ve loved Sula’s light and fruity Chenin Blanc when served at a friend’s home and found it to be cloyingly sweet when I tried the same bottle elsewhere. The same goes for Grover’s La Reserve which can be pleasingly deep or overly acidic, depending on where it is stored, when it is opened and how it is served.
Let me bite the bullet here. The bottom line: Indian wines just aren’t there yet. Maybe, as Kewadkar says, the wines themselves are good, but they are transported poorly, stored badly and served inappropriately. Maybe the general public needs to be educated about wines before wine consumption becomes a widespread phenomenon. As someone who has given up global togs for a home in India, I desperately want quality domestic wines. But the difference between Indian wines and even Chilean or South African wines is startling. Chinese wine is awful and Indian wines don’t do much better when compared on an objective—or even subjective—global scale.
The saving grace, of course, is the winemakers—a committed ambitious lot who have the chutzpah to stake a name in a field that could—with the next harvest—become a minefield. India’s terroir may lack the depth and complexity of those century-old, dry-farmed vineyards.
Its weather may be uncooperative with respect to storing and transporting wine. But the men and women involved in Indian winemaking are bringing the same smarts and hard work that has resulted in India Shining.
And to that, I raise my glass.
Shoba Narayan drinks lots and lots of wine...and also spits it out. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org