India’s Emerging Wine Scene—Maharashtra’s “Wine Street” in Focus / by Leanne Wiberg

Leanne Wiberg is a geologist and naturalist, who has been putting science into plain English for ten years by developing winery and vineyard tours focusing on science and technology. She has now joined the Wine Tourist Magazine team as a World Correspondent.

Prologue

I was flying into Mumbai (Bombay), where I was planning to join friends for a wine tour. They were taking me to a part of India that is said to be “the next Napa Valley.” I was settled in with a newly published book written by a Hungarian author, who is an expert on the wines of India. His book outlines the backstory and present status of over 50 wineries. A short paragraph caught my attention, because it was about one of the venues I would soon visit. The winemaker at this particular winery is from Bordeaux and previously made wine in China and Russia. She ordered state of the art equipment from Italy and France for his latest venture.  I smiled as I read that ALL the equipment (much of it top-of-the-line) had to be delivered by oxcart. I was astonished and completely intrigued by what I might discover on Maharashtra's "Wine Street."

Sula Vineyards

Sula Vineyards

Introduction

Well, let me give you a little background. I want to introduce you to the wonderful, international mashup of culture and entrepreneurism that I discovered in the Wine Capital of India, the area of Maharashtra near the city of Nashik.

I have visited four Indian wineries. All were fascinating and each had its own heartwarming story. I am offering here both insight and advice on how, with a bit of extra planning and preparation, you can pull off your own wine adventure to two of the most accessible wineries I toured. The wines were far better than I’d expected. Your trip will be both educational and inspirational.

 

These accessible wineries lie along what is known as India’s “Wine Road.” This corridor is a short strip of the Gangapur-Savargaoan Road, five miles west of the city of Nashik, which itself is 80 miles north of Mumbai. Your outing is an ideal two-day trip. You might question why two days are needed to visit two wineries. Your jouney will involve a drive from Mumbai that is probably four or five hours long, even though the wide Mumbai – Nashik highway is paved. A similar distance might be covered in half that time elsewhere. Additionally, to escape the monsoon season, you are likely to be visiting in the middle of winter when the day length is a tad bit shorter. Driving after dark is not recommended, at least for a first trip, because of unpaved and unlit roads hosting a variety of foot, cart, and motorcycle traffic. Squeezing in two wineries on a one-day trip is simply impossible.

Some cultural aspects on your outing will stand out as exotic and novel. For example, you will see more motorcycles than cars in the parking lots because... well... motorcycles are far more common. Your wine tour guides will offer more instruction in basic science and wine etiquette than you might expect, because wine drinking itself is still unfamiliar to most locals. On the photojournalistic side, if the sun angle is just right, you might see the shadow of a grazing goat cast against the vibrant and colorful sari cloth which itself enrobes some of the vines. The fabric protects the vines from road dust thrown up by traffic, which includes everything from cars to people to oxcarts. The goat is there to keep the weeds down.

Older Vines at Sula Vineyards

Older Vines at Sula Vineyards

However, what will also stand out is the quality of much of the wine and the joie de vivre that has developed as the Indian wine industry begins shuddering its peacock’s tail enough to attract worldwide notice. The winery employees I had the pleasure to meet on my tours are passionate, enthusiastic, and hard working. Indeed, India has an abundance of respected Hospitality and Tourism Management Colleges feeding directly into the staffing pipeline of winery tasting rooms. On top of that, Agricultural Universities in a few Indian states now offer wine, brewing, and alcohol technology degrees, increasing the labor pool of trainable apprentice winemakers. As well, experienced winemakers from all parts of the world are looking toward India as a burgeoning source of Vitus vinifera wine grapes, because table grape production has been soundly rooted there for centuries. A vibrant social media scene has developed in major Indian cities updating and enlightening an increasingly educated set of young adults and working professionals who have disposable incomes adequate enough to let them explore the world of wine. 

Sula Vineyards—The Flagship Winery of India

Gate 36/2, Govardhan Village, Off Gangapur-Savargaon Road

Phone: +91 253 302 7777

Sula maintains pride of place in historic, economic, and geographic frameworks.

It was the first winery to be established in the country. Since its founding in 1999, it has started wearing many hats. Two restaurants, a huge tasting room and a fairly extensive winery tour are major features. However, wine courses and a yearly music event in February, at the beginning of the harvest season, are also recurring events. Harvest extends, by the way, through March. Check to see when their grape stomping sessions run. They are a great photo opportunity.

As well, Sula offers a nearby 35-room resort, which can make special accommodations for your driver’s room and board. Unless you are touring with locals, you’ll most likely have a driver.

Sula has captured 70 per cent of the market share in India and exports wines to 20 countries. It is truly the founding father of “Wine Street.”

Wine Server at Sula Vineyards

Wine Server at Sula Vineyards

The winery and vineyards are located in an area known for growing table grapes, a staple crop that has been farmed in that part of India for hundreds of years. Contract vineyards located off of the estate provide 75% of their grapes because their production is on such a grand scale.

Geographically, the vineyards are located on the Deccan Plateau, which hosts fertile volcanic soils. Viticulturists highly endorse this area for two reasons. First, it has good drainage and a uniform, gentle slope. Second, it has the ideal combination of warm days and cool nights necessary to grow the healthiest and tastiest wine grapes.

Sula produces wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Reisling, Shiraz, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. While your tasting will be extensive, as is the case in tasting rooms, several reserve wines will not be poured. If you explain how far you’ve come and if they are not busy, you might get a taste of the behind the counter wines.

My recommendations:

Brut sparkling made with 5 different grapes (Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Sultana, Shiraz, and Pinot Noir) and the Merlot/Malbec blend.

York Winery—A Family Operation

Gate No.15/2, Govardhan Village, Off Gangapur-Savargaon Road

Phone: +91 253 223 0701

York Winery is a scaled-down version of Sula, which was built in 2006. They have their own sommelier and chef to help you pair their wines with local food. While production is a fraction of Sula’s, the wine quality is quite high and the staff is very knowledgeable. Ideally, a visit timed to include a glass of wine at dusk lets you enjoy their spacious tasting room and watch the sunset over Gangapur reservoir. This winery can offer a bit more romance and a more intimate educational environment because it is less “big business” oriented. It hosts the sari clad vineyards I mentioned earlier. This is one of the most photogenic spots I saw on the whole trip. Wildlife and shorebirds abound in the area.

I learned more about Indian wines during my visit than I ever expected to. My tasting was conducted by Bhusan. The winemaker's brother Ravi gave me an overall orientation. I particularly enjoyed discussing viticulture with Shagith Prakash, the assistant winemaker. A worthwhile interview with winemaker Kailash Gurnani outlines the trends he is sees in the local wine industry and his winemaking philosophy. 

York produces wines from Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

My recommendations:

Herbaceous and grassy Sauvignon Blanc, fruity Shiraz, and a refreshing rosé.

Appropriate Dress

Appropriate Dress

Cultural Accommodations About Public Dress for Women

Most locals are much too polite to tell a woman to her face that she is not dressed appropriately. However, considerations of propriety in public dress for women are an important social courtesy. Western tourists might be tempted to dress in clothing they would wear at home because . . . after all, they are on vacation. Nevertheless, to avoid stares and to respect the cultural norm, a woman's legs should be covered if wearing a dress. In addition, it is offensive to many locals for a woman to show cleavage, a profile of a bust, or her shoulders and upper arms.

At local getaway resorts, like the one at Sula, touristy attire (which is more revealing) will be accepted. Nevertheless, in any place where women mix with the general public, wardrobe modesty is important. This might mean that women will be changing their clothing when moving from the resort to the winery complex.

Some folks will tell you that this advice is old-fashioned and silly. My advice, however, is up-to-date and comes from a member of the diplomatic corps in Mumbai. It is best to err on the side of caution when dealing with how Western women dress in India.

Planning Considerations

Tour arrangements can be made at: http://winetourindia.com

The only book on the topic of Indian wineries (just published) is written by Peter Csizmadia-Honigh: http://thewinesofindia.com/collections/frontpage

The winery that received equipment by ox-cart is Maharashtra’s Vallonne Vineyards. It’s a challenge to find, but well worth the trip.

Roadside eateries are only meant for locals. Your GI tract could never adjust to the fare there. It’s called Delhi Belly and a dose of Cipro and Gatorade would get you back on your feet in a few days, but you do not want to go that route. Trust me. Eat in the large city of Nashik at a spot recommended for the tourist trade.