India's Wine Story / by Nikhil Agarwal

Nearly always, when I tell international audiences that we make wine in India, they look at me completely baffled. It is as if the idea of making wine in what they consider South Asia’s “climatic conditions” and even the notion of Indians drinking wine are completely out of this world. The truth is that there is a growing wine industry and wine drinking audience in India. This is particularly true in major cities.

Grover Zampa Nandi Hills

Grover Zampa Nandi Hills

A Short History

Indian wine production dates back only a couple of decades. Chateau Indage opened in 1982 and for many years was the only winery until it was followed by Grover Vineyards and then Sula Vineyards. Over the last couple of decades, other wineries began to come online. More recently, there has been a marked improvement in the quality of wine and this trend continues.

The subcontinent really has no history with wine. There are no indigenous grape varieties and vitis vinifera vines were introduced only a few decades ago. Consumption was limited to more affluent elements of society. In other words, wine was nearly non-existent.

In less than two decades, three things have happened. Quality has improved and a sizeable number of international wines are available for purchase. More importantly,  Indian consumers have developed an interest in global food trends and this has extended to wine.

Chandon India Winery

Chandon India Winery

A Quality Revolution

On the winemaking front, through constant experimentation, winemakers better understand which varieties do best in Indian terroir. Aside from grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, there are others that may seem surprising. You will also find Gewurztraminer, Sangiovese, Grillo, Malbec, Tempranillo and some Pinot Noir.

The two centers of production are Nasik, near Mumbai, which is 600 meters (2000 feet) above sea level and close to Mumbai.  The second is even further south, in Karnataka, at an elevation of roughly 900 meters (3000 feet). Grapes are harvested at the end of January or February to take advantage of the regions coolest season. The timing is important for a country so close to the equator.

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Indian wines have been winning awards at all major competitions globally on a yearly basis. India’s great wine ambassador globally has been Indian food restaurants that offer Indian wine to complete the Indian experience. But it would be wrong to say it stops there. Indian wine is featured on top end and Michelin star wine lists and Sommeliers and wine directors wanting to prove their metal offer something different to their customers has resulted in Indian wine being listed in menus at restaurants serving all manner of cuisine.  Indian wine is now available in over 25 countries globally with brands like Sula, Grover’s and Fratelli leading the way.

The Spread of Wine Culture

Some wineries have tasting rooms and restaurants that offer a vineyard getaway, which is hugely popular with those in nearby cities.

So the culture of wine continues to spread across the subcontinent’s major metropolitan areas and into many second-tier cities. As such, the relatively small consumer base is expanding rapidly.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, Indians do consume alcohol. The amount of whisky, beer and brandy consumed will make even the most diehard drinking countries shake their heads in astonishment. So it’s not aversion to drinking that’s the problem. Rather, persuading consumers to understand a beverage with which they have no history.

There is, however, a new trend for Indians to experience food and wine together. It is not yet as common as in some western nations, but food and wine pairing is on the rise. Consumption at home with a meal is not common, but ordering in restaurants or opening a bottle on the weekend is definitely becoming more commonplace.

A twenty-something-year-old has more access to wine in both retail and at the restaurants than at any time in history. Two decades ago there was relatively little choice in terms of wine and dining options. Now we see modern retail stores with a plethora of wine choices. At the same time, high-end restaurants and hotels take their wine programs seriously.

Challenges

Imported wines are exorbitantly priced compared to their Indian counterparts. The government considers imported wine a luxury good and taxes them accordingly. The result is that an average bottle of imported plonk is only aspirational for many average Indians.

Today just over 500,000 cases of imported wine are sold annually. A sizable percentage of that market is dominated by entry-level Australian wine. Labeling laws make it difficult for smaller international producers to invest in creating labels specific to Indian labeling regulations, so the market favors large producers.

Storage conditions and service of wine needs great improvement in smaller, non-luxury hotels and restaurants. Wine retail, for the most part, needs a major overhaul. Having said that, the top hotels and restaurants and select retail shops do have the right infrastructure and are trying.

While not good for consumers, this trend has proven a boon for Indian wine producers. Time will tell how this relatively new industry will fare.

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Looking Forward

Cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore are becoming increasingly global with an influx of people from all over the world who are used to drinking wine. Indians are making more money, traveling more than ever before, and are exposed to international food and drink cultures.

As a result, there are frequent wine events, international chef dinners paired with wine, and wine clubs in various cities. Wine bars are also opening with increased frequency. In a short period of time India has come a long way in its wine story. While this may be something of a slow burn, an influential wine culture will definitely be part of India’s future.