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Travel & Holiday

Indian grape escape

India is developing wine tourism, with a trail for wine appreciation and degustation sessions
The Straits Times - February 21, 2012
By: Kevin Pilley
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Indian grape escape -- PHOTO: SULA

Swirl, sniff, sip and enjoy the tastes and new aromas of India.

I lifted my glass and experienced enlightenment via the subdued tannins of home-grown Indian merlot.

Another cork popped, this time from a bottle of Indian premium shiraz.

'Perfect with spicy food and pizza,' said my wine-tasting guru Meenal Kansa.

I was being initiated into modern Indian viticulture at Sula vineyards on Godavari river in the north-west region of Maharashtra state, which is a three-hour drive west of Mumbai. Sula, a pioneer in India's wine production, is the main stop on the viticulture route.

India - if associated with any beverage, it would be tea - is starting to develop its wine experience.

Not only are some Indians developing a taste for fine wines but vineyards such as Sula (www.sulawines.com) are also developing such a reputation that India now has a tourist wine trail offering degustation and wine appreciation breaks.

Sula has opened India's first vineyard resort, Beyond, a 23-room ultra-modern, spa-like complex overlooking Gangapur Lake. It bills itself as 'the perfect antidote for stressed-out city folk'. Prices start from 6,000 (S$152) to 7,500 rupees for a deluxe room.

It holds an annual wine festival every February, coinciding with the harvest. This year, it was held on Feb 4 and 5.

The Maharashtra region in particular has become the hub of India's new wine tourism, with the Nashik region its equivalent of California's famous Napa Valley.

Once India's largest market place and famous for its 'wadas' (courtyard houses), the Hindu holy city of Nashik, 200km from Mumbai and Pune, is a bustling provincial city built on agriculture and is carving out a reputation as an IT centre.

But its countryside terroir - a French term referring to the combination of factors such as soil, climate and environment that give a wine its character - are now attracting wine tourists.

Thirty mainly boutique wineries have made Maharashtra's Deccan plateau the Indian wine capital, its vineyards accounting for three-quarters of the country's total wine production. About 10 million litres are produced a year, 90 per cent of which is for home consumption.

In comparison, Australia produced 728 million litres of wine last year, according to Wine Australia, an Australian government statutory authority that provides strategic support to the Australian wine sector.

India's quality table wine industry is very much a fledgling one.

It was only as recently as 1997 that Sula was founded by Stanford University graduate Rajeev Samant, a former Silicon Valley software engineer and self-proclaimed wine evangelist.

The viniculture here was initially overseen by Californian master wine maker Kerry Damskey of Sonoma Valley. The chief wine maker there now is Ajoy Shaw, who studied biotechlogy and was a research fellow at the University of Pune before studying wine in Bordeaux and California.

Indeed, the first time I invoked Varuni, the 18- armed Indian goddess of wine, was 15 years ago in Goa, after opening a 25-rupee bottle of something with the odd name of John Bir Blue. After regaining consciousness, I asked the deity to let me breathe.

The next time I sampled Indian wine was on a train. Some domestic house red partially helped wash down a not-completely-cooked fish finger canape on the Golden Triangle Palace on Wheels train. One mouthful made the train shudder despite being stationary.

Much has changed. Indian wines have improved enormously and are now winning awards at prestigious international fairs. Sula's Sauvignon Blanc won silver at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2011.

Mumbai wine bars such as the Ivy Cafe (tel: +91-22-66547939) and India's first wine bar The Tasting Room (tel: +91-22-65220440) are doing a roaring trade.

As well as imports, staff are recommending local wines, offering pairing suggestions and consulting tasting notes.

The main international hotels have the best wine bars and wine lists.

As for wine clubs, the country's first one was founded in Delhi. Bangalore and Mumbai also have clubs for wine enthusiasts. India is expected to consume three million bottles of wine this year.

'Indians come from a virtually blank slate where wine is concerned, but in the last decade or so, wine has become an integral part of the social scene,' says the founder and publisher of wine magazine Indian Sommelier, Mr Reva K. Singh.

Although there is no Hindi word for wine (the generic word for alcohol, sharaabad, is used), an increasingly affluent middle class has seen the emergence of a new breed of wine connoisseurs and wine makers. Additionally, more Indians are being weaned off beer and whisky onto wine.

India grows more grapes than notable wine-producing country Australia. However, most grapes in India are eaten fresh or sold as raisins. Out of a million tonnes of grapes, only 10,000 are made into wine.

And yet, wine-making in India probably goes back over 5,000 years.

Temple paintings depict ancient binge drinking and toddy tapping. Early wine made from rice, palm, barley and saffron calmed Kashmiri soldiers before combat.

The Kannidisas, residents of the southern state of Kanarkata, were also wine drinkers.

Macedonians travelling with Alexander the Great probably propagated vines. The Portuguese introduced port to Goa. In Victorian times, the British set up vineyards in the Baramati, Kashmir and Shirat regions.

One of the earliest Indian wines was made by Shaw Wallace & Co, the first importers of cars into India. It produced a golconda wine from the Bangalore blue grape. Named after an ancient ruined city in south-central India, the fortified ruby wine (port) is still available.

As well as a visit to Sula, another 'must stop' on the Indian wine trail is Ranjut Dhuru's award- winning Chateau d'Ori vineyard (www.chateaudori.com) at Nhera-Ori, 20km from Nashik.

Recommended wines are certainly the merlot and reserve shiraz. A walk beside the nearby canal is also worthwhile.

Zampa in the Vallee de Vin at Sanjegaon (www.vallee-de-vin.com) in the Sayadori Valley is also on the itinerary. Its Soiree Sparkling is a revelation, as is the chenin blanc. One of Zampa's wines, One Tree Hill, is named after the solitary mango tree on the estate.

Not far away is The York Winery (www.yorkwinery.com) on Ganapur- Savargaon Road near Gangapur Dam.

Founded in 2006 and located half an hour's drive from Nashik, the flagship tipple of the Gurnani family's 2.8ha vineyard is a reserve shiraz. The rose and sauvignon blanc are also excellent.

International winemakers have been involved in the project and now Kailash Gurnani, who studied wine-making in Australia, is on board and looking forward to the crush this year.

All the grapes are handpicked from the estate or acquired from local farmers. Tour and tasting costs 150 rupees.

But for wine fans, it all starts and ends at Sula. After all, it is the most widely consumed and distributed wine brand in India. It is reported to have a 70 per cent stake in the estimated rupees 500-crore market.

The first grapes from the red, iron-rich soil of Dindori (a 'taluka' or administrative district of Nashik) were crushed at Sula in 1999. Sauvignon blanc and zinfandel followed.

The first riesling came in 2008.

Sula also produces 'mosaic' (a blend of grenache and syrah) and a sparkling brut (French for 'dry') as well as a dessert wine.

As I looked out over the fields of grapes at Sula, chief wine maker Ajoy inhaled the bouquet from a wine he had poured and we clinked glasses.

He said: 'Our Dindori Reserve Viognier is a wonderful blend of fruit and minerality.

'The off dry wine has intense aromas of ripe apricot, peaches and white fruit on the nose complemented with a savoury medium mouth feel of tropical fruit and hints of stony minerality. It goes down exceedingly well with curry.'

About 1,900 cases of the 2011 vintage were produced at Sula.

My tasting session and winespeak tutorial not quite over, I asked what Sula means. The answer: Peaceful.

It was exactly how I felt, amid the piquant and robust aromas of the Indian wine-growing district.

Kevin Pilley is a freelance writer

 

GETTING THERE

At least five airlines fly from Singapore to Mumbai, including Air India, Thai Airways and Jet Airways. A return flight costs about $560. Singapore Airlines currently has a special offer for a return ticket to Mumbai, starting from $628.

5 things to do

1 Not all wineries have walk-in tasting rooms. So unless you are part of a tour group, do make an appointment before your visit.

2 Walk the Godavari River, India's second longest after the Ganges.

3 Eat pizzas and pastas at Little Italy Restaurant at Sula Vineyards (tel: +91-9970090010) and in the York Winery kitchen (+91-25322230700).

4 Visit the Gargoti Crystal Museum, Asia's only Money Museum (20km from Narsik); the Tryambakeshwar temple, which is one of the 12 'jyotirlingas' or sacred abodes of Lord Shiva; the Pandu Lena caves and the Nandur Madhmeshwar Bird Sanctuary (nandurmadhmeshwarbirdsanctuary.blogspot.com). The Dudhsagar Waterfalls, 8km from Narsik, are beautiful and a perfect picnic spot.

5 Have some Sula wine with a salmon sandwich and washami cream cheese in The Tasting Room, Mumbai (+91-2265220440).

2 don'ts

1 Don't miss the temples of Nashik, such as Trimbakedshwar Shiva Temple. It is an ancient Hindu temple and incredibly impressive. It is 28km away from Narsik.

2 Don't expect that finding some wineries will be easy. The best thing is to join a tour, such as Black Grape Holidays (e-mail info@blackgrapeholidays.com), which offers a US$90 (S$112) weekend wine-tasting tour.

 

 

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