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Chenin Blanc at the York Winery in Nashik. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint
Chenin Blanc at the York Winery in Nashik. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint

Oenology | A character-building exercise

The excessively sweet Chenin Blanc is losing its earlier tarnish and getting glossier than ever

Just two months after harvest, the wines were hazy, their sediments still settling in the steel tanks. They looked more like freshly squeezed lime juice than the clear, pale golden libation we’re used to seeing, but both had a bright, fresh character, crisp and well-balanced with acidity.

Yet, the 2013 wines we previewed at the Reveilo and Grover Zampa wineries last week, which will reach the market later this year, were hardly the standard-issue sherbet Indian wine snobs imagine when they hear the words Chenin Blanc.

York, another boutique winery in the area, makes a nuanced fruit-forward version, and even Sula, the leader with 60% of the wine-market share, puts out a Chenin Blanc that is slightly less syrupy than previous vintages, though still fairly round and on the sweeter side.

It’s evident that not all winemakers subscribe to the old idea that Chenin Blanc should be a simplistic starter wine for the masses—these new wines tasted nothing like the sugary, characterless products that used to come out of most Indian wineries a few years ago. Boutique growers, at least, are now choosing to craft their wine in the drier, more internationally accepted style, rather than be swayed towards sweetness by Indian market patterns.

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Reveilo’s Chenin Blanc grape in Nashik. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint

That winemakers are seeing the potential in the Chenin Blanc grape is good news for wine drinkers in India who are of the opinion that Indian wines, especially the white varietals, aren’t nearly as interesting or well-made as their international counterparts.

Rahul Akerkar, founder of deGustibus Hospitality, which owns the Indigo and Indigo Deli chain of restaurants, feels that Chenin Blanc is a “nice, bright wine that’s way more fun to drink than big, oaky Chardonnays".

“There is an inherent sweetness to the style which goes well with Indian food, and the way they’re being made now, they have more character, acidity and balance," he adds.

Of the white grapes, Chenin Blanc makes up the bulk of production in Nashik and the country’s other wine-growing regions. Data collated from three wine-growing states with corporation markets (Karnataka, KSBCL; Andhra Pradesh, APBCL; and Kerala, KSBC) indicates that the sale of Chenin Blanc from the wineries in these areas made up 59% (or 14,659 cases—each case holds 12 bottles of 750ml each) of the total sale of white wine in the last fiscal, excluding blended wines and new varietals like Grillo and Muller Thurgau. That is nearly double the amount of Sauvignon Blanc sold.

Chenin Blanc was one of the first varietals to be imported (from France, 1996), and was therefore the first white wine Indian drinkers were introduced to. Until a few years ago, the only other locally produced white wine was Sauvignon Blanc. The basket today is more varied: White grapes like Chardonnay, Riesling and Viognier are coming to prominence, but not, it seems, at the expense of Chenin Blanc. “People may be trying different wines now, but the class of young wine drinkers who always want something fresh, sweet and easy to drink is increasing," says Rajesh Awachat, winemaker at Reveilo.

Winemakers were quick to see that Chenin Blanc meets these criteria and could be marketed well to novice drinkers: It’s fresh, and makes a light wine characterized by tropical fruity notes of melon and honeydew. No intimidating, intense body and long finishes here. Pioneer wineries and farmers in India soon realized that it grows easily, adapts well to most conditions, and is a high-yielding grape. Soon, regions like Nashik were inundated with Chenin Blanc.

Its image took a beating when it was overcropped in the early days, resulting in a diluted, poor quality wine.

Generally, Indian Chenin Blanc has tended to be sweeter—a conscious decision by winemakers to leave more residual sugars in during the process. Sneha Rao, assistant winemaker at Big Banyan Wines in Karnataka, says she tried to bring down the sugar in her “easy-to-drink, entry-style" soft Chenin Blanc, but that the move wasn’t well-received. “If it’s less sweet it’s too harsh on the Indian palate," she states.

The price points of Chenin Blanc are also inviting for entry-level drinkers. They range from 400-800 per 750ml bottle, and have traditionally been kept on par with, if not slightly more affordable than, other whites in a winery’s portfolio.

Thus far, connoisseurs have tended to dismiss it as a bulk quaffing option. Internationally too, there has never been an aura of glamour around this varietal, the way there is, say, around Chardonnay, with its ability to be matured in oak and offer a much more complex flavour profile.

The current white wine that people have a thirst for is Moscato, a light, fragrant varietal—figures from the California-based Wine Institute show that Moscato retail sales rose by a third in volume last year.

Chenin Blanc from France’s Loire Valley and regions in South Africa is lauded for its crispness and fruity complexity; in other regions, it’s considered a fairly ordinary variety.

Observing that there is a perceptible shift towards a crisper, more mineral Chenin Blanc, Holland, who is the head of wine and beverages for ITC Hotels across India, insists that the glut of sweeter wine on shelves doesn’t necessarily indicate consumer preference.

“People are still drinking it because that’s what’s widely available," says Holland. Sekhri agrees: “We’re an evolving market. Consumers are still experimenting, it’s not that they have dogmatic opinions and will only drink one style of white and not try anything else."

Some winemakers are bucking the trend, and choosing not to include the ubiquitous Chenin Blanc in their portfolios at all. For instance, Shambhavi Hingorani’s SDU Winery in the Nandi Valley in Karnataka bottles a Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and soon, a Chardonnay. Chenin Blanc, which forms the bulk of most portfolios, is conspicuous by its absence. “It has been a crowd-pleaser and the market is therefore flooded with it. But the Indian palate is definitely evolving and consumers are moving away from the typical medium-dry Chenin Blancs to drier styles of white wines," says Hingorani.

Though Chenin Blanc occupies a large slice of the wine pie in India, the pie itself remains minuscule. According to the UK’s International Wine & Spirit Research Organisation’s (IWSR’s) ‘India Wine Market Report 2012’, the country’s annual per capita consumption is less than a small glass of wine. Fragmented state taxes are cited as one obstacle to the growth of the industry.

Even if wine-drinkers have developed a taste for more complex varietals, as many in the industry seem to be betting on, Chenin Blanc is still expected to make up the bulk of the white grapes grown in vineyards here as it is also used to make blended white wine, sparkling wine and late-harvest dessert wine—the market for these is growing steadily. At Sula’s Tasting Room in Nashik, its best-selling wine is the late-harvest Chenin. According to the IWSR report—cited on The Wine Club website—sale of sparkling wine in India in 2012 rose by 24% over the previous year, to 94,000 cases.

Internationally, sparkling wine is made with Chardonnay, but that’s a temperamental grape to grow in these regions. ‘Estates & Wines’, the Moët Hennessy wine division, also recently announced that it is launching a domestically produced sparkling wine at the end of this year which will be a blend of Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay grown in Nashik’s Dindori region.

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