Andrew Buncombe discovers affluent India has joined the wine trail
BY the flickering light of the restaurant’s candles, suspicious particles seem to be floating in the wine the waiter has just poured. It is hardly an auspicious start to the evening. But in an instant comes the explanation. There is nothing wrong with the wine: these are flakes of 24-carat gold, added to the Californian chardonnay by the winemaker for an additional wow factor. And it works. The group of well-dressed men and women laugh and lift their glasses towards the light, the better to see the wine sparkle.
In India, wine is being drunk as never before. This year, as for the past half-dozen years, sales are expected to increase by 35 per cent and perhaps more. Partly fuelled by India’s newly buoyant consumerism and partly by the increasing numbers of people travelling abroad for business or holidays, wine has rapidly become the latest symbol of affluence and supposed sophistication for the country’s newly wealthy middle classes.
Like carrying the right handbag or driving an elegant car, nothing says I’ve arrived better than to be seen swirling a glass of wine.
Of course, there are plenty of people who enjoy the stuff. Across the country, wine clubs are being set up, tastings are being organised by some of the world’s leading producers and India’s wine industry is starting to make a handful of vintages that can compete internationally. In the past decade, the number of Indian vineyards has grown from no more than a half dozen to about 50, concentrated mainly in the Nashik region of Maharashtra, 190km from Mumbai.
Kapil Grover, owner of Grover Vineyards, one of India’s oldest and most respected producers, whose French-imported vines grow in the elevated region of Nandi Hills near Bangalore in southern India, says the wine market is booming. ‘‘ I’m 52 and think we’re going to see 30 to 35 per cent growth for the rest of my lifetime,’’ he says.
The history of wine in India can be traced to the oldest religious writings. The Yajurveda, one of four Indian vedas, or knowledges, written in Sanskrit and believed to date from several centuries BC, tells how the Hindu gods Indra and Varuna drank a mixture of wine and herbs known as Somrasa. One line of the Yajurveda reads: ‘‘ Oh, plants, it was Indra and Varuna who first drank the Somrasa. Having gratified him, now I partake of the oblational food with Somrasa.’’
Yet despite the support of the gods, those promoting the spread of a genuine wine culture in India today face many hurdles. In a country where an estimated 77 per cent of India’s population of 1.15 billion people survive on perhaps as little as 50c a day, and where the gap between the rich and poor is increasing, the market for wine operates at the top of the economic pyramid.
High taxes mean the cheapest bottle of ordinary or indifferent Indian wine costs 400 rupees ($10). An imported bottle is considerably more. A poor labourer wishing for an instant anaesthetic to the rigours of his daily life can buy a small bottle of industrially made rum or whisky for a handful of coins. And he doesn’t have to worry about flakes of gold. That well-heeled group enjoying the so-called gold wine at a peaceful restaurant in the south of Delhi are typical of the people behind the surge in the growth of wine sales and for whom importers are furiously stepping up efforts to market their products.
Middle-aged professionals at the higher levels of their jobs, many first tasted wine while travelling abroad. Returning to India, they have joined the Delhi Wine Club to learn more about this discovery.
‘‘ We like to travel,’’ says Shravani Dang, head of corporate communications for a leading Indian industrial conglomerate and a member of the club for three years. ‘‘ We were in Rome and we learned a bit about wine. It’s good to learn things such as pairing food and wines. We had drunk wine before . . . a few years ago we had a case of South American wine and we had a cheese and wine party. Nobody knew anything about it. People would ask, ‘ When are you bringing out the real drinks?’ ’’
A woman who describes herself as a midlevel management professional and is in her 30s has been in the club for two years. She says she enjoys interesting conversation and trying different wines. Members Anil and Reena Khana joined the club after their children sent them to France to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. They toured the vineyards of Bordeaux and were hooked. When they returned to India they signed up.
‘‘ We wanted to learn more about wine and different wines,’’ says Anil Khana, a friendly business manager of a large group of companies. ‘‘ It’s really like a hobby.’’
The evening’s dinner and tasting started with the gold wines from the 100 Acres label in the Napa Valley, a chardonnay and viognier blend and a rose, and rapidly progressed to several wines from Australian producer Buller. There were two chardonnays, a shiraz, a merlot and finally a 2005 cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend.
Members munched through mozzarella salad, a vegetable risotto, a series of main courses including the rare delight — in Hindu-majority India — of seared beef tenderloin, and finished with an apple tart. The evening concluded with a mulled red wine that was not the toast of the night.
Even among the country’s wealthy set, wine still encounters opposition from those who prefer India’s drink of choice, scotch whisky. Tusha Gupta, an interior designer, says it is taking time to break down prejudice against wine. ‘‘ You go to a party and people still don’t like to have wine,’’ she says. ‘‘ People believe it’s women who will have a glass. They’ll have a cocktail or a whisky.’’
Indeed, despite the headline figure of 35 per cent year-on-year growth, India’s wine consumption remains tiny. The country’s sales of about 1.2 million cases of wine equates to a teaspoon a person. At the other end of the scale, the thirsty French drink 55 litres a person every year. But a more telling comparison may be with China, so often listed with India as a superpower of the future. There the annual consumption of wine is a glass for each person. In terms of sales, China may also be ahead of its rival and neighbour.
Robert Joseph, a British wine writer and founder of the International Wine Challenge, reportedly the world’s largest competition, says India is not progressing as quickly as some people may like to think.
He says improvements in India’s wine production have been made in the past five years, largely as a result of efforts by the Grover and Sula vineyards. But Indian wine producers retain a reverence for French labels when the techniques they ought to be using are being developed by New World producers, in particular Australians.
‘‘ Grover and Sula . . . have produced worldclass wines,’’ he says. ‘‘ But the best of these wineries’ efforts are the exceptions to the rule.
‘‘ No other Indian winery is yet making wine that would stand comparison with successful efforts from Europe or the New
‘‘ World, though many Indian examples are far better than plenty of unsuccessful efforts from Europe.’’
But those in the trade in India are adamant the tide is turning. Three years ago, publisher Reva Singh started a wine newsletter that was sent out to a small group of subscribers. Now Sommelier India , the country’s only magazine devoted to wine, is a grown-up, bimonthly glossy in selected stores. Subscriptions for the magazine, which contains news and features on Indian and imported wine, are up 25 per cent on last year.
Another optimist is Subash Arora, the irrepressibly enthusiastic president of the Delhi Wine Club and publisher of an online newsletter. He is responsible for the 20 or so wine dinners and tastings held by the club every year.
Arora is more than aware of the challenge he faces. He knows the sales of whisky and beer outstrip that of wine more than a hundredfold. He knows, too, that wine is a product only a tiny fraction of Indians could hope to afford. Yet he is convinced the momentum is on his side.
At the tasting in Delhi, as people begin to wander away, Arora lingers to explain more about his enthusiasm. Standing with a half glass of ruby-coloured Australian wine, he says: ‘‘ This is more than just my hobby, it’s my passion.’’ The Independent www.groverwines.com www.sulawines.com www.delhiwineclub.com
Plucky drop: A worker harvests grapes in Nashik, about 190km from Mumbai, in the heart of India’s flourishing wineproducing regions