Wine in India, part two: winemaking
After a night experiencing wine culture in Mumbai, the following morning we hit the road and headed for Nashik, one of India's main wine-producing regions.
Nashik is a three-hour drive north-east of Mumbai, and home to several important brands which we visited over a two-day period. For an industry that is still so relatively young and small, this is sufficient time to get a good overall impression of winemaking in India, and it left me with two principal thoughts. The first concerns the challenges of subtropical viticulture, and the second concerns a particular flavour characteristic - and the two are very possibly related.
Our first visit to Grover Zampa illustrated the viticultural challenges. The land here is dry and hot for much of the year, and vines rely on irrigation to grow. That's not so unusual, and needn't be deleterious to quality, but the nature of the seasons means that the vines produce a crop twice a year. One harvest is vinified while the second, lower-quality crop is discarded - but the impact of this strenuous growing pattern may be manifesting itself in the wines themselves.
Across many different producers, grape varieties and styles, a feature common to the Indian wines we tasted was a strong smoky, rubbery scent. Until quite recently, this was something often found in South African reds, although nowadays it seems to have diminished. While preference for this flavour might be a matter of personal opinion, if this rubberiness dominates the flavour profile and obscures varietal character then it must be classed as a fault.
The problem is worsened by the fact that nobody agrees on what causes this problem (and some seem to deny it exists at all). At Grover Zampa, they blamed red pigmentation on Shiraz leaves as the cause, while at York Winery it was attributed to the lack of dormancy experienced by all grapevines in Nashik. Elsewhere, people suggested viral infections, underripeness in grape bunches, insufficient nutrients within fermentations, or even smoke from roadside fires as the cause - all of which just goes to show how much there is still to be learned.
And learn they must, if Indian producers want to be taken seriously on international markets. Far too many of the reds exhibited this rubbery smoke flavour and in that condition, the wines would undoubtedly be rejected by the UK market.
Thankfully, we also tasted examples of well made, modern and tasty Indian wines. York Winery make a fragrant peppery Shiraz/Viognier, Vallonné's Anokhee Syrah is a richer, jammier style reminiscent of South Australia, while Grover Zampa's Vijay Amritaj Viognier is a faithful depiction of the variety with generous peach aromas.
All of them share a fruit-driven, New World style which could easily fit into the vinous mainstream. Of course, the next question is how to distinguish such wines from the myriad similar styles made around the world. The answer to that question is almost certainly 'marketing' although this is a costly and time-consuming exercise!
Which brings us to one of Nashik's newest additions, from those masters of marketing, LVMH: Chandon India.
The Chandon winery was built in 2016, although the first wines were made in 2014. They produce three sparkling wines: Rosé, Brut and Délice (a sweeter style, with 50 grams per litre of sugar) from Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Shiraz.
As you might expect from such an experienced and cash-rich company, the technical standards here are very high, without any smoke taint flavours. Lees age is limited to 12-15 months, resulting in a simple, clean, fruity style with well-integrated fizz. Again, distinguishing such a generic style from other champagne-method sparkling wines made around the world would be tricky - but interestingly, LVMH have absolutely no intention of doing so.
The Chandon brand is now produced in five countries: Argentina, Brazil, Australia, California and now India. Despite the vastly different origins and grape varieties used, the idea is that they effectively deliver the same experience wherever they come from - in a similar philosophy to the non-vintage model of champagne.
The labels are therefore virtually identical. Compare the bottle shot I took in India with those used in Argentina and Australia, for instance:
Investment from big, successful wine operations such as Chandon is a great endorsement of the Indian wine industry, but in many ways it is still suffering from serious teething problems. To develop winemaking standards to an internationally comparable level, the first challenge is to eradicate the smoke taint character and understand how to maximise quality in a climate that is not natural for grapevines. Once that happens, producers can then think about what makes their wines unique in a world where styles are so often identical.
The best wines from the likes of Sula, Fratelli (see part one), York, Vallonné and Grover Zampa show that the potential for quality already exists in India. But just as wine culture within Indian society is only just starting to develop, a full realisation of India's winemaking potential needs time.