Friday Focus; India

Didn’t think a sub-continental country located just north of the equator could grow wine? Well, it turns out not only are they able to, but the industry is growing at breakneck speed- and some of it is pretty good!

Looking back through history, grapes have been grown in India for centuries; it is believed they were introduced to northern India by the Persians in 500BC. Whether they were fermented into wine is a bit of a different story however, as many historians believe the grape was simply used as fruit juice. This is due to the lack of any evidence of fermentation containers such as those found throughout so many other ancient wine-producing societies. In the centuries following the introduction of the grape however, there are scraps of evidence that the aristocratic classes and royalty consumed wine (or something very close to it!), while the lower castes consumed a rougher spirit made from Barley, wheat or millet. Upon the arrival of the Muslim Mughal Empire, which ruled most of India from 1526 to 1857, all alcohol was banned due to Islamic restrictions upon its consumption. It wasn’t until the introduction of the ‘Government of India Act’ in 1858, which let the British Crown formally assume direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj, that alcohol was again in fashion. Along with their love of cricket, the Brits brought with them a healthy thirst and viticulture was encouraged, although drink of choice back then leant more towards beer and the thirst-quenching Gin and Tonic. Upon Independence, Mahatma Gandhi in drawing up the new Constitution stated full prohibition of alcohol as a target of the country, though today the only legally-enforced dry state is Gandhi’s home province of Gujarat. Alcohol in India has faced (and today still faces) many blockades, and for the most part throughout history has been either frowned upon or altogether prohibited. Only today is wine finding a true and happy home in modern India. 

Today it is estimated that in this country of 1.25 billion people, there is a middle class of 250 million. As India modernises, it is seeking to import Western culture and traditions, one of which of course is the understanding and consumption of fine wine. As the number of millionaires grows, there are many opportunities for sale of high-quality imported wines; however the low value of the Indian Rupee does not work favourably for the prices of these wines for the majority of consumers. Therefore this largely agrarian country is making the logical step of growing and producing wine themselves! Today there is approximately 111,000 hectares of grapes producing 1.2 million tonnes of grapes, although less than 10% of this is made into wine. The wine-producing regions are focused around the south-central states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra- this last region is where the majority of commercial wineries operate out of. Many of the vines are planted on the slopes of the Sahyadri mountain ranges in Maharashtra, between 200-800m above sea level to offset the extreme summer temperatures reached in the seaside towns and cities. The monsoon season thankfully falls during the dormant phase of the vine in June-August, where the regions receive between 600-1500mm of rain per season! Funnily enough, so little rain falls in the spring and summer growth times, irrigation is required in many vineyards!

The first commercial winery in modern India was opened in 1984 by pioneer vintners Chateau Indage, followed by Grover Vineyards in 1988. Indage succeeded quickly, and produced a sparkling wine with surprising elegance that achieved great success in Britain, however this aggressive expansion eventually led to its downfall. Grover on the other hand took the slower and steadier route; trialling different varieties to see which will work, hiring French oenologists to help with problems, and not releasing a wine until 1992 when they believed it to be good enough. As a result, they still exist today. The true success story however is Sula vineyards. Founded by a former Silicon Valley engineer in 1999, Sula is now the biggest producer in India, responsible for a whopping 80% of the country’s market share in the 2015-16 financial year- a staggering 21% increase in wine sales compared to 2014-15! Sula’s head winemaker Kerry Damskey (a Californian and fellow Masters of Wine student!) has been doing some great things, and is putting Sula at the forefront of this growing market. They are obviously in the right spot in central Maharashtra, as their neighbour is Chandon India, run by French luxury giant Moet-Hennessey!

Wine tourism is becoming a popular pastime for many middle and upper class Indians also. Sula vineyards saw 250,000 tourists come through their doors over the 2015-16 financial year. This is a fantastic indication that locals are becoming interested in learning more about the wines, as well as where they come from and how they are made- a huge step forward for the country’s wine industry.

Mark Faber
Wine Sales Manager