Indian wine’s costly progress

India’s wine industry is small and probably at the stage of the Chinese industry about three or four decades ago. For publication in week of 10 December 2018.

It will probably be many years before drinking wine in India becomes a way of life in the way it has evolved in many European countries. Leading sommelier Magandeep Singh describes India’s wine industry as being in its nascent stage, but he regards it as promising.

Singh says the industry “needs time and inputs” as well as more rules and regulations. It was important, he said, to establish a formal body to govern the industry and bring a sense of authority and reliability to Indian names and brands.

Magandeep Singh runs the Wi-Not Beverage Solutions company in Delhi. He has written one of the few books about the Indian wine and spirits industry. The Indian Spirit: The Untold Story of Drinking in India was published last year.

Singh believes Karnataka and Nashik are the best regions in the country for making wine, and he has a slight preference for the former. For him the best wine brands are KRSMA, followed by Grover-Zampa and Fratelli. “York is also very good while Reveilo and Vallone have decent wines.”

India’s huge diversity of climate and geology means relatively few areas are suitable for viticulture, mostly around Maharashtra, the Punjab and Karnataka. Within the Maharashtra region, vineyards are found on the Deccan Plateau. Jancis Robinson MW calls the city of Nashik in the state of Maharashtra the “wine capital of India”.

Vines are trained on bamboo and wire in pergola style to increase canopy cover and to get grapes off the ground to avoid fungal diseases. The canopy protects grapes against sunburn. Rows are spaced wide to help aerate the vines. Irrigation is vital.

The Sultana variety, which originated in Turkey, is the most widely planted grape and represents more than half of the 60,000 hectares in the country.

The turning point for the modern industry occurred in the early 1980s when the Tonia Group, helped by French winemakers, planted international grapes in Goa on the west coast.

In her monumental book The Oxford Companion to Wine, Robinson notes the emergence of India’s growing middle class fuelled the development of the wine industry. By the start of the 21st century, she wrote, demand was said to be increasing at a rate of 20 to 30 per cent a year.

Viticulture was believed to have been introduced to India by Persian traders about 4,000 years before the birth of Christ. Historians believe these early plantings were mostly table grapes.

Wine became the drink of the Kshatriya, traditionally the ruling and military class of Hindu society. They essentially protected their interests and those of society by fighting during times of war and governing in peace time.

During the 16th century Portuguese colonists in Goa on the west coast drank mostly fortified wines such as port. Alcohol was forbidden under the Moghul empire from 1526 until 1857.

The British started to control India from about the 1850s. They encouraged viticulture. Vineyards were planted widely in the states of Maharashtra, Kashmir and Gujarat. These were beginning to flourish until the phylloxera louse devastated the industry in the 1880s, as in most of the world’s wine regions.

Negative religious and public opinion about alcohol developed at the same time. In the early 1950s several states introduced prohibition. The Constitution that evolved after India’s independence from the British in 1947 declared that one of the government’s aims was the total prohibition of alcohol.

wine shop India.jpgThe big issue for wine in India is retail costs. Prices are extremely high in restaurants, and also high in bottle shops (see example at left), relative to incomes. Singh describes the mark up on prices in restaurants and hotels as “crazy”. These costs, combined with the high taxes on foreign wines, make wine drinking unaffordable for the average citizen.

Ranjit Gupta, CEO of the Amfora Wine and Food company, confirmed the high mark-ups on restaurant wine lists. A bottle of premier cru Burgundy typically costs at least 200 USD. But India with its 1,400 million population has many rich people who are willing to pay high prices.

In a month in India it has not been possible to taste a large range of wines, but I have done my best. Two of the most pleasant I tried were made by Sula and Fratelli, the latter named for the Italian term for brothers. Peiro Masi from Tuscany is the chief winemaker. The company makes artisanal wines with an emphais on sustainable viticulture.

I can confirm that wine is expensive relative to many people’s buying power. Prices vary considerably from state to state, depending on taxes and local laws, as well as market forces. In Delhi, for example, wine and beer have a maximum retail price listed on the back label. A 750ml bottle of Kingfisher beer is supposed to sell for no more than 125 rupees in a bottle shop, and a similar size bottle of Sula has a maximum retail price of 600 rupees.

But shops usually charge much more, depending on demand and availability. I typically paid around 800 to 1,000 rupees a bottle for Sula wine (USD 11-13 or GBP 9-10) in Delhi.

The mark up in restaurants is brutal, often five to seven times the retail price in a bottle shop. In the Imperial hotel in Delhi, for example, a bottle of Sula costs GBP 44 (USD 56) even though the hotel probably paid about GBP 5 (USD 7) a bottle. A glass of white wine in a small café in central Delhi cost 700 rupee plus 20 per cent VAT on alcohol. This makes it almost as expensive as the same quantity of wine in England or the US outside of major cities.

In restaurants in other states such as Rajasthan, restaurants typically charge between 23,000 and 32,000 rupees a bottle. The average annual salary of a waiter in some of these restaurants would be about 100,000 rupees – enough to buy three or four bottles.

Singh has some strong views about the state of wine education in India. He describes it as “lacking and sporadic”. He is puzzled that people in the industry appear “hell-bent on aping Western sensibilities”. To Singh this makes no sense: “1.4 billion palates need their own set of rules, not an arbitrary one proscribed by the West”.

Personal observation showed that wine waiters tended to have minimal training. They filled each glass to the brim – perhaps to empty the bottle quickly and encourage the purchase of another bottle – and they had little idea how to present wine such as offering ice buckets to keep wine chilled.

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Categories: India, Not home, wine

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