Traveling through India on summer vacation, I had expected breathtaking sites, punishingly hot weather and fresh, flavorful food. What I didn’t anticipate was fine, locally produced wine. Yet, that’s exactly what I experienced — magnificent sites and food, excruciating heat and wonderful Indian wines — throughout my sultry journey.
Weeks after I returned home, I was even more surprised to find the very same wines served in the Indian restaurant in my New York neighborhood. India, I learned, has a burgeoning wine industry, one that creates and exports highly satisfying Syrahs, Cabernets, Zinfandels, Reislings, Viogniers, and Chenin and Sauvignon Blancs.
Statistics make case for India’s growing wine trade
While I may have been amazed by the surfeit of Indian-made wines, serious oenophiles would not be. According to a March 2012 report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, during the past decade India’s wine market grew at a rate of more than 20% each year. Concurrently, its number of wineries increased from less than 10 to more than 75. In 2012 alone, its retail wine sales jumped from 5 % to 30% of alcohol sold nationwide. Most of this purchased wine originated in India.
The country’s recent economic prosperity has, in part, propelled the wine craze. As more people gain disposable incomes, travel and become exposed to diverse cultures and customs, their interest in beverages other than locally brewed beer and spirits grows. Swayed by the much-touted health benefits of wine, more feel compelled to try a glass.
With the advent of wine bars and shops, opportunities to partake of this beverage are multiplying. This is good news for consumers, for imported wines tend to be pricey. Because of high tariffs, a bottle from Europe or South Africa averages about $38, whereas from India it falls between $3 and $14.
“Even 1,300 rupees, which is about 26 U.S. dollars, is way too expensive for middle-class Indians for wine,” says Ramakrishna Shastry, a university professor and IT professional from Mangalore. “When I go out for dinner with a group of people, most prefer beer or the 500 to 600 rupees — about 10 to 12 U.S. dollars — wine.”
Shastry confirms what studies indicate. When visiting bars, shops or restaurants, more Indian consumers reach for affordable local vintages.
India’s wine trade benefits from a climate suitable for grapes
Although I understood the passion and demand for homegrown wines, I was unaware that grapes could thrive in such a tropical, monsoon-rich climate. If I wilted in the humid, 115-degree August heat, surely grape vines would, too.
Outside the city of Nashik, in the western state of Maharashtra, an oasis for winemakers exists. Here, in what many call India’s Napa Valley, the weather is temperate and conducive to cultivating a wealth of grape varieties. Vineyards not only persevere but also flourish in this region.
Among the most famous from Nashik is Sula Vineyards. Founded by Stanford-educated engineer Rajeev Samant and California vintner Kerry Damskey, Sula planted its first Sauvignon and Chenin blancs in 1997 on Samant’s 30-acre family estate. It released its first wines in 2000. Today, the winery produces 20 different sustainable reds and whites, including three sparkling and the nation’s first dessert wine, the Late Harvest Chenin Blanc.
It was Sula that provided me with my first sip of Indian wine. Crisp and mildly herbaceous, its Sauvignon Blanc was light and refreshing — the perfect accompaniment to a plate of dal tadka or handful of puffed lotus seeds on a balmy Agra night.
No sooner had I fallen for Sula’s Sauvignon Blanc than I encountered its bold Dindori Reserve Shiraz. Aged for one year in new oak barrels, the Shiraz possessed a smooth, full-bodied flavor reminiscent of a fruity Cabernet. Although recommended for meat and seafood dishes, this versatile beverage paired beautifully with vegetarian lentil soup, the eggplant curry baingan bharta and chicken tikka korma.
My wine sampling didn’t end with Sula Vineyards. From the foothills of Nandi Hills, Grover Vineyards supplied me with a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc and rich yet clean-tasting Cabernet-Syrah blend. Based outside the city of Pune, the Four Seasons hotel offered a pleasantly sweet Viognier with hints of peaches and apricots.
Because Sula, Grover and Four Seasons export to the United States, I can continue to enjoy them at home. Whenever I feel nostalgic about my summer vacation, I make a spicy curry, uncork a bottle of chilled Indian white and start flipping through trip photos. Thanks to these wines, I get a full taste of India without ever packing a suitcase or stepping outside my front door.
Photo: The view of the Taj Mahal from the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel in Agra, India. Credit: Kathy Hunt