SUB­CON­TI­NEN­TAL SIP

Andrew Bun­combe dis­cov­ers af­flu­ent In­dia has joined the wine trail

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Asian Indulgence -

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

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