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India’s Grape High

The sight of wines and sparklies been swished around in elegant flutes is not uncommon in India anymore. How and when did this change come? Where is India’s wine industry heading to? We analyse it all…

The sight of wines and sparklies been swished around in elegant flutes is not uncommon in India anymore. How and when did this change come? Where is India’s wine industry heading to? We analyse it all…

Welcome to India, a land where whiskey is the alcoholic drink of choice, and teetotalers exist by millions. A surprise to none, a wine culture has been almost non-existent here. The Indian countryside isn’t quite known for rolling vineyards and expansive wine estates, but the nation is now producing enough wine to export to 22 countries. Why and how is that happening? India’s wine consumption is changing, quite rapidly at that, and is forecasted to grow as the country emerges as one of the fastest growing markets for wine consumption on the global map. Santé to that!

A large number of Indians today have just the right consumer profile to embrace wine as a lifestyle beverage. Once the privilege of the educated elite, today the potential market lies in the growing middle-class, who enjoy an increase in their disposable income and tourism; and women consumers. The rise in consumption can also be attributed to factors including the health benefits produced by wine, the fact that wine is lower in alcohol than other spirits, and the ‘lifestyle’ image it offers. India is switching from whiskey to wine and beer. Also big retail chains in certain states are now allowed to sell wines. More and more people are drinking wine, every new restaurant that opens has a wine list, and awareness is growing fast. Women are drinking in much bigger numbers, and often their first choice is wine. Indian wines are also getting popular all over the world. As the world gets a taste for the Indian grape, the price of vineyard land in some places in the country is estimated to be as expensive as in parts of Bordeaux in France where grapes have been grown for centuries!

A quick chat with some of India’s finest sommeliers and brands gave us an insight into this rapidly changing scenario.
One grape, or two
Why is India suddenly clinking wine glasses instead of swigging a pint of beer with their mates? "The market for wines in India has been nascent so far and presents vast potential. India is a vibrant market with one of the youngest populations in the world. There is an increasing curiosity in the market for wines, which we see as an opportunity that must be nurtured," said Mr Gaurav Bhatia, Marketing Director, Moët Hennessy India. The introduction of Chandon in India recently came at a time when the Indian consumer is increasingly embracing an international lifestyle while taking pride in all that is Indian.

Ask Mr. Sumedh Mandla, CEO, Grover Zampa Vineyards, and he will point out India’s leaning towards wine. "Wine was not a preferred drink till about six or eight years ago. That many now prefer it over any other alcoholic beverage is a transition in itself, but India’s wine culture is still evolving. Wine consumption is expected to grow at a rate of over 25 per cent in the next five years. This growth is not only sustainable, but could even be conservative if duties were lowered. In the next 10 years, wine consumption could reach more than 10 million cases!" he said. Mr Magandeep Singh, India’s first and finest sommelier, also agrees that the wine scenario in the country looks positive, fueled by curiosity and awareness, and also by social uppity-ness.

Ms Cecilia Oldne, Global Brand Ambassador, Sula Vineyards opines along the same lines and is quite positive about the Indian wine industry. "With respect to wines, the influx of imported brands also, such as Ruffino, Cono Sur and Hardys to name a few, has exposed Indians to world class wines. Over the past decade, the Indian wine consumer has matured and will continue to do so over the next decade. The industry has witnessed an approximate 15 per cent growth in the consumption of wine in India over the past years. Sula expects double digit growth for the next decade at least, making it one of the world’s most exciting wine markets," she opined.

Sula also notices that its customer base is growing twice as fast among women as compared to men. It is becoming more acceptable among women to drink wine and their consumption throughout India has increased by 28.7 per cent in the last five years as compared to a 17.3 per cent surge in demand from males. In India, wine is consumed by less than one per cent of the total population. With the current average per capita wine consumption in India at just 10ml per annum, the opportunities in the country seem limitless.
India on the map

The quality of wine is growing in India and is slowly gaining more acceptability internationally. This can be credited to the area of Nashik, which is abuzz with a variety of grapes. Located some 2,000 feet above sea level, Nashik is situated approximately 200 km from Mumbai and Pune. It has become one of Maharashtra’s important industrial and agricultural cities; is well on its way to becoming a leading IT centre; and has already achieved the status of ‘wine capital’ of the country. "Nashik is certainly the wine-making heartland of India and offers a terroir that is conducive to creating world-class sparkling wines. With the launch of Chandon India, we aim to bring wine making in India to new heights," said Mr Bhatia.

"Nashik Valley has always been the country’s largest producer of grapes. Until recently over 95 per cent of the produce was of table varieties like Thompson Seedless and Sharad. Globally, however, the scene was exactly the opposite with 95 per cent of grapes produced in countries like France, Italy, Chile, Germany, USA, Australia and others. With the increase of wine production coupled with the government’s new wine policy, the acreage under cultivation for wine grapes around Nashik increased dramatically and continues to grow," explained Mr Mandla. More and more farmers are switching over to growing wine varieties to meet the growing demand from wineries that have mushroomed in the district.

The district of Dindori is a prime grape growing area with the terroir being excellent for the cultivation of grapes. Terroir can differ from vineyard to vineyard, and even in different parts of an expansive vineyard. In other words, terroir imparts a certain sense of belonging, a unique character to the wine made from grapes grown in it.

Ms Oldne also pointed out that Indian wines are unique in every way possible. The terroir (soil and climate) of India, and Nashik in particular, gives Indian wines a distinct taste and feel. "We have not tried to copy the taste of foreign wines; rather, we have tried to create wines that would suit the Indian palate. Sula was the first to put Nashik Valley as a region on the bottle. While others try to claim a European linage or proximity, Sula is proudly Indian! We have always been clear that we want to stand out as a winery that takes pride in being Indian," she said proudly indeed!

Mr Singh sees Indian wines making their mark on the international scene, slowly but surely. "Earlier we were about quantity, but now with brands like Fratelli, Chandon, Grovers-Zampa, we are fast shifting focus to quality and that is a great sign," he said. Nashik in Maharashtra sees some major grape growth, but Mr Singh doesn’t think it is quite covered yet. "We are a few stages before that, battling for quality and consistency. Once we have that, we shall be able to understand what the innate nature of our soils and climes are, as also our own winemaking philosophy. Terroir isn’t something we develop or understand overnight, so there is no rush there," he said.

A fine comparison
There are a multitude international brands that have become a part of India’s social circle, but Indian brands are now on the rise, and with good cause. Over the years, Moët Hennessy has devoted a great deal of time, effort and expertise in understanding the wine-growing regions of India. "Our team has conducted extensive R&D, which has now culminated in the creation of Chandon in India. Through extensive research we selected the Dindori region that lies 20-40 kilometers north of Nashik. This region is known to have lower temperatures than other sub-regions surrounding Nashik which is perfect for growing high quality fruit. The soil is fertile and conducive to grape growing," said Mr Bhatia. Interestingly, there are similarities to the soils in Australia, Argentina and California. However, no two soils are the same. So the wines from Chandon India will have their own signature.

Mr Mandla too is sure that Indian wines will definitely match up to international brands. "The aim of Grover Zampa is to ensure that we produce Indian wines that are of international standards. We currently export 20 per cent of our produce to over 12 wine countries," he said.

Mr Singh is a little wary of the prices and opined that while quality in Indian wines is a given, for that quality level, India may be a bit more expensive than foreign counterparts. "Blame our taxes and duties, not just on wines, but on all wine-related machinery equipment and accessories that make it so. Crazy as it may sound, a kilo of grapes in Nashik are often more expensive to buy than a kilo in the South of France, and the latter are much more strictly controlled for their quality than we can imagine or hope for locally!" he exclaimed.

Nashik, and beyond
Besides Nashik, there are other areas in India that are under the radar of wine manufacturers. According to Mr Mandla, the Bangalore region is one such area. "The Nandi Hills, located about around 45 km north of Bangalore, houses one of our vineyards, and was the location selected by Grover family in 1980s after several experiments with wine grapes across India," he said. The Himachal region in Northern India is also upcoming for wine production due to its unique climate. Even certain pockets in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are growing wine grapes.

Adding to this list is Ms Oldne who said that Krishna Valley is also an ideal grape growing region in the state. "In Karnataka, more than 12 varieties of grapes are used for making Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Pinotage, Shiraz, Zinfadel, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and others are being cultivated by farmers who have contracts with the wineries. These varieties are mostly grown in Bijapur, Belgaum, Koppal, Bagalkot, Bangalore Rural and Urban, Kolar and Chikkaballapur districts," she shared. Mr Singh added that the Hampi Valley in Karnataka features prominently. "But am sure that regions in Uttarakhand and Himachal, as also around Darjeeling, will show some serious potential once somebody decides to be adventurous. Of course it would doubly help to have a local government which understands and supports the movement, an initiative that largely helped in the case of Nashik," he opined.

Better it

For an industry that is less than two decades old, Indian wines have made some serious progress. But a lack of strict governing rules and a hurry to catch up with other new wine producing countries in terms of production volumes are leading India’s wine industry astray. So how can we better the wine production in India? "Wine should be declared as an industry and subsidies should be developed to improve the quality and generate platform to export to other countries," said Mr Mandla.

According to Ms Oldne, there are a number of challenges in the Indian wine industry that need to not only be identified as obstacles by the government, but also need to be addressed timely. Among her list, lowering taxes on wine vis-à-vis spirits; single national labeling law; simplified national tax structure; easier on-trade wine and beer licenses; need for special educational institutions and vocational courses for local man power; check on rising costs of land and grapes; and improved storage and transport infrastructure featured amongst others.

Mr Singh sees the coming of big brands as a positive sign. The Indian business biggies buying into the wine scene will also help corporatise the sector and bring order as the current farmer-run bodies are not able to understand the true nuances of running the industry as a long-lived business entity. What turn will this industry take now?