India is trending toward wine. The favorite beverage of Dionysus is fast becoming the gateway drink for the nation’s younger generation. The tradition of two scotches before dinner is morphing into a wine-by-the-glass culture.
Noticing this change, France’s legendary House of Moët & Chandon has made its initial foray into India with the premiere release of Chandon India, a sparkling wine produced for the domestic market. The wine is made in the emerging wine region of Nashik (or Nasik), a four-hour drive north of Mumbai. The uncorking of Chandon Brut and Brut Rosé in October 2013 drew Mumbai’s glitterati and Bollywood superstars.
Most wine regions are known for their distinctive grape varietals: New Zealand’s Marlborough area for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, France’s Chablis for Chardonnay, Germany’s Mosel region for Riesling and so on.
On my recent visit to Nashik, I was impressed by its Chenin Blanc. It was so good, I suggested to a few winemakers that they brand this region as “Chenin Blanc Country.” This is the varietal that goes into Chandon’s sparkling wine. Nashik’s diurnal temperature creates an ideal growing condition for Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc — wines perfectly suited for India’s hot weather and spicy foods.
Wine just beginning to emerge in India
India’s wine industry is in its embryonic stage. In a country of 1.2 billion people, wine consumption in 2013 was estimated at 1.6 million cases, with an annual growth rate of 20% to 25%. The country has 70-plus wineries with more than 260,000 acres under vines spread among 11 Indian states. The noted areas are Bangalore in Karnataka state in the south and Nashik and Pune on the west coast, both in close proximity to Mumbai in Maharashtra state.
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On the banks of Godavari River, Nashik (with a population of 1.5 million) is steeped in mythology. It’s among the four locations where Kumbh Mela — a Hindu pilgrimage — is held, making it one of India’s holiest cities. With more than 100 temples, temple tourism is a big draw. The city is also an automotive and pharmaceutical manufacturing hub. And now comes its newest attraction — wine tourism, with some 30 wineries, fancy tasting rooms and harvest festivals.
Chandon’s winemaker, Australian Kelly Healey, was my daylong guide in Nashik. The company purchases fruit from local growers, and production, started in 2011, is done at the local York winery. Chandon’s own winery is under construction in Dindori, a subregion of Nashik, and scheduled for completion later in 2014. New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Winery is Chandon’s technical partner in Nashik, Healey said.
Avoiding soil that’s better for table grapes
Healey gave me the lowdown on Nashik’s geological profile. Hillside vineyards, some at an elevation of 1,300 feet, contain porous, red-brown, rocky basaltic soil with a slightly richer brown soil on flat land.
“The one we want to avoid is the black soil on alluvial plains,” Healey said. The rich organic matter with water-retaining property is better suited for table grapes. And there’s a lot of that going on, because table grapes exported to the United Kingdom and Russia fetch a better per-ton price than wine grapes.
From October to February, temperatures dip to mid-40 F. Harvest season is from February to March. “There’s no dormancy, so the vines are all confused as there’s year-round growth,” Healey mused.
Annual prunings are in April and September, and most farmers create artificial dormancy in April. “They spray with a hormone so the vines drop leaves,” Healey said. During monsoon season, June to August, vines are sprayed to keep them healthy. “It’s a difficult place to do organic farming,” he admitted.
Nashik’s popular varietals range from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Malbec. Some producers are experimenting with Tempranillo, Grenache and Sangiovese. Nashik does not have an appellation certification, but the bottles bear the name. The region was pioneered in the 1980s by Chateau Indage, followed by producers like Sula and Zampa.
I visited four wineries, starting with Sula, which was launched in 1998. Back then, visitors lacked wine culture, recalled winemaker Ajoy Shaw. “They didn’t know what wine was. ‘Can we mix with water?’ they asked.”
Sula ushered in California-style wine education with an upscale tasting room and winery tours. All Sula bottles have screw caps because many consumers don’t own corkscrews. “And waiters struggle to open bottles in restaurants,” Shaw said.
Sula is clearly the leader in the Indian market, with an annual production of 700,000 cases and 29 different labels. The flagship wines are Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wines. The reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Shiraz. In tasting the Nashik reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, I found they lacked the tannin structure. No wonder, because Cabernet requires a longer growing season, which this region does not offer. So what you get here is sugary ripeness, not flavor ripeness.
I tasted an exceptional Chenin Blanc at York Winery, a wine I feel could stand up to any world-class Chenin in a blind tasting. Owned by the Gurnani family of Nashik, York is run by brothers Ravi, in charge of marketing, and winemaker Kailash, who studied oenology at Adelaida University in Australia.
In 2008, they produced their first vintage of wines from sourced fruit and the six-acre estate vineyard. Annual production of 10,000 cases includes Sauvignon Blanc Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and a Zinfandel Rosé.
In nearby Kavnai village, Vallonné Winery sits on a 20-acre estate. Founder Shailandra Pai conducted a tasting of a fragrant 2013 Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2011 fruit-forward Malbec. I was impressed with the barrel tasting of the 2013 Merlot, which showed integrated tannins.
A few miles further, Grover Zampa’s 13-acre vineyard is set on a 35-acre estate. Its annual production of 25,000 cases includes 18 to 20 wines. The whites lacked fresh acidity. What stood out was the flagship 2010 Chêne Reserve, a blend of Syrah and Tempranillo showing structured tannins and fruit.
The Nashik trip was quite an experience — modern hotels in the city yet bullock carts, corn fields and sun-dried cow dung cakes along wine country’s rural trail. But Ravi Gurnani is positive about the future.
“Chandon being here is a good push for others,” he said.
Main photo: Picking Grenache at Grover Zampa Vineyards. Credit: Mira Honeycutt