Wine in India, part one: culture

When I landed in India, the first thing I noticed was a monkey roaming around the airport. That was eleven years ago in Delhi when I was going to volunteer in Dharamsala. Did I ever tell you that I'm SUCH a good guy? No? Well, here's a video I made to prove it, made when I was 28. Good grief.

Anyway, two months ago I landed in India for the second time ever and this time, the first thing I noticed was wine in the duty-free shop. Which was exactly why I was here: visiting Mumbai to get a taste of wine culture and winemaking in India, hosted by Sonal Holland - India's first and only Master of Wine, author of India Wine Insider, and a friend since we met on the James Busby tour of Australia in 2011.

This first article is all about wine culture in India; the second will be about the winemaking.

Indian wine journey begins.

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Having seen a very rural, disadvantaged side of India eleven years earlier, I was curious to see the opposite end of the scale, which is exactly where we started. At Vetro, an Italian restaurant in the five-star Oberoi hotel, we tasted a range of Indian wines before a high-end dinner featuring the wines of Ornellaia.

This was luxury India, executed to the same high standards you find in every major global city. The Indian wines we tasted were similarly ambitious, made by Fratelli, a winery with 240 acres of vineyard near Akluj, about six hours drive south-east of Mumbai.

All these wines are made in conjunction with international wine professionals and they would turn out to be the most impressive Indian wines I tasted during my visit. Sette 2009 is the first vintage of a project blended by Piero Masi from Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Chewy, meaty and substantial, with firm tannins, it is more reminiscent of Bordeaux than anything Italian, and shows just how impressive wine from India can be. The current 2013 release is still full of primary fruit intensity and it would be interesting to see if it ages as well.

A collaboration with Jean-Claude Boisset has produced the J'Noon range, the first vintage of which was 2016. Both the Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc and the Cabernet Sauvignon/Marselan/Sangiovese blends showed purity, sophistication and complexity that goes far beyond the expectation that most people might have of Indian wine. Also of interest is the M/S blend made in partnership with Steven Spurrier (pictured above), and composed of 60% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Franc and 20% Syrah. It was similarly polished and ripe - although there was a distinct smoky note on the nose, reminiscent of the 'Cape rubber' aroma which was once common to South African reds, and which soon became a recurring theme of the trip.

Following the tasting was a wine dinner designed to showcase some of the finest drinking and dining available in India.

The wine dinner menu - click to expand

Much to my surprise, a group of high-flying Mumbai socialites had been gathered for the occasion, which featured three reds from the Ornellaia stable, plus Noble One Semillon from De Bortoli, as well as Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2013, which I had brought with me on the plane. 

As an introduction to Mumbai wine culture, it proved a worldly and sophisticated experience that owed much more to western fashions than local ones. The level of wine appreciation was the equal of any comparable dinner in London, as were the standards of cooking and service. Yet there was also the sense that such an occasion was still a distinct novelty - as confirmed by the coverage in the Mumbai Mirror gossip column a few days later.

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Mumbai mirror close up.JPG

The following morning we would drive to Nashik to see the other side of the wine world in India - the vineyards and wineries, including the biggest producer by volume, Sula. Most of the wines they produce are aimed squarely at the newcomer to wine - a very different proposition from the fine wine culture of the wine dinner. Their best-selling white is a Chenin Blanc with 15 grams of residual sugar, which is deliberately drinkable in a basic, easygoing way, but they also produce some impressive Shiraz under the Dindori and Rasa labels, which prove how accomplished their winemaking can be.

Sula provided an opportunity to see how wine is handled at a more everyday level: for many visitors to the Sula complex, this is their first-ever encounter with wine. Alcohol is generally much less mainstream in India. In the upmarket parts of Mumbai, wine is available in shops, supermarkets and restaurants in much the same way as it is in Europe - although the range, quality and condition of bottles can be something of a gamble, and the vast majority of staff know nothing about wine. 

But the concept of having a casual glass of wine with dinner at home, or popping out to a wine bar on a Friday night is anathema to the vast majority of the 1.3 billion Indians - and unaffordable to most of them too. In fact, cost is hugely prohibitive, thanks to national taxation of 150%, plus additional state taxation. By comparing average wages and average bottle prices, I reckon that wine is roughly four or five times more expensive than it is in the UK - so a cheap bottle of wine costs the equivalent of around £30 retail.

At Sula, however, it becomes much more affordable - hence the hundreds of people that visit every week. It reminded me very much of the kind of winery experience you'd get in Australia - with restaurants, shops and the all-important wine bar on a high terrace overlooking the vineyards. I was standing there when I saw the group below gathering for a photo - they saw me looking and struck a pose.

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India is often described as a country of contrasts, and it's much the same with wine. Vetro and Sula proved that India is perfectly capable of doing wine well at both the elite and everyday level - what you have to remember is just how rare and foreign wine still is for the vast majority of the population.

Getting wine into the Indian mainstream is a formidable challenge - but with places like Vetro, Fratelli and Sula already thriving, plus an MW such as Sonal at the helm, it seems only a matter of time.