On my first visit to India, in 2002, I met one of the country’s first wine writers, a young woman who told me that her friends would routinely ask her, “What’s the point of wine? Whisky gets you drunk so much quicker.” How things have changed. Despite punitive taxation and mind-boggling regulation and paperwork, India now has a thriving wine culture – or at least its vast middle class and “upper crust” (the name of an Indian glossy magazine) do.
Taxes and duties on imported wine are imposed by both national customs and the individual state. They are cumulatively so high that consumers can pay 10 to 12 times the initial cost of a bottle when they buy wine from one of India’s relatively small but growing number of wine retailers. A basic bottle of Jacob’s Creek, the leading imported brand, could, for example, easily cost the equivalent of £20 off a shelf, and many times more on a hotel wine list.
The hotels, in particular the big chains, played the crucial initial role in introducing Indians to wine, and they still largely provide the setting for the wine dinners sporadically organised by foreign wine producers trying to establish themselves. Château Margaux, for example, a first growth keen to repeat Lafite’s success in China, flew in Alain Passard of L’Arpège in Paris to design and cook a vegetarian dinner to go with their wines last December.
Back in 2002 you could count the number of licensed restaurants independent of hotels on the fingers of one hand, even in Delhi and Mumbai. Today, the introduction of a much cheaper licence for establishments serving only beer and wine has encouraged many more cafés and casual eating places to offer wine. There is now sufficient interest in wine service for the most charismatic of young Indian sommeliers, Mandheep Singh, to have forsaken the dining room for a consultancy and the TV screen. But in general, Indians who want to sell wine have to submit to an expensive and cumbersome process originally designed for the distribution of spirits.
Until Indians were introduced to wine, a typical retail outlet for alcohol was a heavily guarded, steel-caged, grubby shop selling dubious spirits to even more dubious men. Initially, a major brake on the development of wine culture in India was the poor quality of storage conditions and transport for a liquid that is much more susceptible to heat damage than spirits and beer. But smart, well-lit, air-conditioned wine stores are beginning to proliferate in India’s newer shopping malls, affording women a chance to handle and buy bottles too.
Wine has opened the door to social drinking for Indian women, who before its introduction into Indian society were expected merely to watch while their menfolk downed whisky in great quantities before a late dinner (although dinner invitations specifying “8.30pm for 11pm” are by no means a thing of the past). Today wine and food are often consumed together, European style. In fact, as one Indian political economist friend put it to me, wine consumption can be regarded as a “signifier” in Indian society, indicating that the consumer not only has a certain level of material wealth but that they also understand western mores.
What is remarkable is the speed with which India has gone from a country where a tiny handful of the very rich drank nothing but the most famous names in wine, to one in which thousands of young, well-travelled Indians are beginning to appreciate the nuances of a wide range of wines, both domestic and imported.
The founder and editor of the country’s leading wine magazine, Sommelier India, is a woman. Reva Singh saw her chance back in 2004, “when India had no wine culture”. Today she has about 20,000 regular readers, and reports that even the whisky state of Punjab is being converted to the grape.
Wine bars, wine clubs and wine fairs are sprouting all over the country. But what of Indian wine? Its quality has slowly been improving, and it has the huge advantage of being less savagely taxed than imports. The founder of the most serious red wine producer, Kanwal Grover, died recently, but only after establishing Grover Reserve Bordeaux blend – made with the help of ubiquitous consultant Michel Rolland of Pomerol – as a seriously reliable Indian red.
But the current leader of the Indian winemaking pack is Sula, founded by Rajeev Samant, who returned from a career in Silicon Valley in the 1990s to found this dynamic wine producer in Nashik, Maharashtra, in a region which had long grown grapes for the table. This year Sula, now a tourist destination, will fill a total of 450,000 bottles and ship them to 20 countries. Sula’s reputation is founded on fresh, clean whites, especially the crisp Sauvignon Blanc that can seem like nectar in India’s climate.
A week last Sunday Sommelier India organised The Great Indian Wine Tasting, assembling some of the country’s best-qualified palates to judge blind up to four wines submitted by a dozen of the best Indian wineries. The judges decided that, overall, Indian whites are better than the reds – although since storage conditions constitute wine’s greatest enemy after taxation in India, it may be that whites, generally sold younger than reds, have an inbuilt advantage.
There is currently no effective wine law in India and therefore no controls other than cost on blending and labelling different wines. The outfit in charge of wine is known rather ominously as the Indian Grape Processing Board, but India is a recent recruit to the OIV (Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin), the international body for wine regulation and technical advancement, which bodes well.
Already there is considerable technical input from abroad. Sula’s winemaker is Californian and the relatively new Fratelli operation is run by the ex-winemaker of Isole e Olena in Tuscany – although the special conditions in India’s low latitudes do call for specific expertise in tropical viticulture. All, however, are agreed that wine has finally arrived in India.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com