The domestic wine industry in India has now amassed 30 years of history – but how is the future looking? For publication in the week of Monday 11 April 2016.
A complicated range of taxes, licensing processes and distribution procedures make wine very expensive in India. Add the possibility of inadequate storage facilities and a historic preference for hard liquor to the mix, and we come to appreciate the potential issues in this country. India has been producing wine for 30 years. How has it been progressing?
Key producers like Sula and Grover are known overseas, and Moet Hennessy is now producing sparkling wine there, under the Chandon label. Chandon Brut Rose was awarded top place in The Best Indian Sparkling Wines 2015 competition organised by Fine Wine & Champagne India magazine. It is a fresh, elegant wine with just enough acidity, lovely aromas of strawberry and cherry stone, and red fruit flavours flavours. So far, so good.
But we note some key issues. In a country where “whisky” is likely to be made with molasses, there’s certain to be some wine adulteration, too. Producers buy in grapes, and may not know exactly what they are getting. In an industry entirely lacking legislation, a bottle which proudly states “Chenin Blanc” on the label may be made with Chenin Blanc, or with a proportion of Chenin Blanc, but may contain the juice of non vitis vinifera grapes, most likely table grapes.
Comparisons with the world’s other most populous nation, China, are apt. Go back two decades, and do these problems sound familiar? Since then, the domestic wine industry in China has transformed itself. Dynasty and Great Wall have become a backdrop to award-winning wineries like the pioneering Grace Vineyard, which has long been producing international-standard wines. Add the fine work being done in Shandong; and, more recently the arrival on the world stage of Ningxia, which has announced plans for the introduction of a quality-based hierarchy within a wine classification system, and we can appreciate what is possible for an emerging industry.
Could India follow a similar road map? Possibly, but there are some important differences, the first of which is price. A bottle of domestically produced still wine retails at around US$10. This is half the price of a basic imported wine, but twice as much as a cheap bottle of spirits. There are cultural differences too, illustrated most clearly in the announcement in early April that Bihar State is to join Gujarat and go “dry”. Explains Parul Pandey, a lecturer in wine studies at The Oberoi Centre of Learning and Development in Delhi: “There is a taboo attached to drinking.”
Important geographical differences also come into play when we compare India with China. While some wine growing regions in China can boast of being on the same latitude as Bordeaux, India does not conform to the established world wine map which says that wine can only be made between the latitudes of 30 and 50. Only Kashmir – where fruits like apples and cherries grow in abundance – falls within this range. This seems a likely place to grow grapes for wine but locals say no vines are planted there.
So while other New World wine producing countries seek out new regions in which to grow grapes, and experiment with different grape varieties on different plots, India’s approach will need to be different.
“It is important that we develop our own style,” says Parul Pandey. “And innovation only happens when you think outside the box.” She sees “a huge demand” for local wine, particularly among tourists, and reports that demand far outstrips supply, perhaps contributing to high pricing. She enjoys drinking Sula Sauvignon Blanc, but feels that too many wines taste the same, an issue she puts down to the inclusion of neutral table grapes in the fermentation process. She’s optimistic about the sparkling wines of Fratelli (a joint venture between an Italian family and two Indian families), once the vines have some age on them. Overall, she says, it will “take time” to achieve quality.
She does not see wine as aspirational, but veteran hospitality industry member and now consultant Arun Agarwal, of Hibiscus, believes otherwise. “I have seen young women at parties walking around with a glass of white wine. They like to be seen carrying it! But for these young women, who have never seen wine at home, it will take time for them to develop a taste for it.” He points to the fact that India does not have a wine culture, but it may evolve.
The hospitality industry needs time to gain knowledge too. Not all hospitality schools even offer wine studies, so students entering the industry may have no idea about wine storage, presentation or etiquette.
There are clearly a few trailblazers, and they include not only investors in vineyards and enthusiastic winemakers. Rahiv Singhal, editor of Fine Wine & Champagne India is proud of his pioneering contributions to the industry. Last year, Peter Csizmadia-Honigh published The Wines of India, which concludes on a very positive note. “Winemakers have been challenged in every possible way, but they have proved their resilience. The wine business is an intricate art and science in India. The future for wine in India is bright.”