Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Indian Wine Country

Fifteen years ago, I ordered an expensive glass of wine in a trendy Mumbai restaurant. There were two choices, and the waiter looked slightly puzzled when I asked for a recommendation. I understood why when he brought out the pricier of the two. It tasted exactly like cough syrup. The concentrated kind. Probably cherry flavored. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but you know that hideous taste!) I soon discovered, first hand, that the only wine worth drinking in the metropolis was port wine from the island state of Goa, though port is more of an aperitif.

It’s said that winemaking in India has a long history, dating back to the 4th century BC, when grapevines from Persia were introduced in the fertile soils of the Indus Valley. In Vedic times, the Aryans were known for indulging in intoxicating drinks, wine perhaps one of them. Winemaking may not have flourished much in India after that but it did continue for centuries to some degree, enjoyed by kings and poets. In more recent history, the British and Portuguese colonizers on the subcontinent encouraged winemaking before a pest outbreak and new social and religious mores virtually wiped it out in the late 19th century. No wonder I was drinking cough syrup.

But my, how things have changed. With the rapid growth in both population and affluence of the country’s middle class over the past decade, India is now one of the world’s fastest growing markets for wine, spirits, and many other luxury items. And exorbitant import duties and stringent regulations have given rise to dozens of domestic labels for beer, wine, whiskey, and other spirits. A number of these young products even receive high marks for quality, some winning international awards.

Whiskey is still king in this country (a remnant of its English colonial past), and India remains the largest whiskey market in the world. But wine is becoming the country’s new darling, with an industry valued at around $400 million and skyrocketing consumption (growing at a rate of 20% to 30% a year), particularly among women and young urban professionals. That I know of, there’s never been much social pressure on women not to drink alcohol, but it seemed that previous generations of Indian women weren't too wowed by the limited options of hard liquor or beer. That's obviously changing.

Riding on the wave of this new trend, the hospitality and culinary industries are also elevating the status of wine in India, perhaps for more than one reason. In the next few months, a friend of ours is launching an upscale seafood restaurant in the south, with plans to throw a wine party on opening night and offer wine pairings with different menu specialties going forward. Such trends are still relatively new to Indian restaurants, and while they are also nifty ideas, the original reason for this restaurateur’s decision stemmed from the exorbitant cost of getting a liquor license. Because the excise department in some metro areas have reached the upper limit of how many licenses they can give out, some business owners closing shop get away with charging up to 60 lakh rupees (roughly US$120,000) to sell them to new entrepreneurs. Since wine and beer licenses come much cheaper, my friend opted for the more affordable wine license.

Meanwhile, local vineyards are “cropping” up all across the country, the most successful ones concentrated in the hilly regions of western and southern states, where the more temperate climates and rich soils are most hospitable. (Farther north can be too arid, and farther east, too hot and humid.) Plus planting vineyards on slopes at higher altitudes keeps temperatures down and offers a measure of protection from the wind.

The great majority of Indian vineyards are concentrated in and around Nasik, in the southwestern state of Maharashtra (of which Mumbai is the capital), with the rest scattered across the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. 

Sommelier D.N. Raju says about four major vineyards supply most of the wine market (most successful are Sula, based in Maharashtra, and Grover in Karnataka), plus about 20 small ones and 10 emerging ones, including his own, Soma Vineyards. Located just outside the Bangalore (Karnataka) metro area, Soma supplies mainly Shiraz, also known as Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc grapes to popular domestic labels such as Grover and is now working to produce grapes for its own boutique line. But Raju has also developed Soma as an exclusive, high-end travel destination, one to rival those found in France and California. It’s uniquely Indian, though, with coconut and teak trees surrounding its 90 acres of hilly vineyards nestled on the banks of a scenic lake. 

Soma Vineyards near Bangalore is fairly new but already attracting
enthusiastic visitors from Australia to Europe as a vacation spot.

Overall, it’s a wonder to watch the Indian wine renaissance, with its new boutique shops, magazines, clubs and “societies,” tasting classes, festivals, even an academy … all exciting offshoots piggybacking on this new booming industry.

Does this surprise you? It does me, since I rarely if ever hear about wines from any Asian country this side of the Atlantic. Have you? If so, any labels you can recommend the rest of us?


  1. That Shiraz/Syrah wine sure does get around. What a globe-trotter! I'd love to try some Indian wines. Are any of them available in the U.S.?

  2. Wow, I had no idea India is the largest whiskey market in the world. I never even thought of India as a particularly drinking country, especially when it came to hard liquor. Live and learn :)

  3. I would love to try some Indian wine. I might need to do some research and see if I can find any here in Oz.

  4. I have not tried Indian wine. But the only wine I could not drink was this stuff from Arizona. And I also knew nothing about the whiskey either.

  5. I have no idea if Indian wines are available outside India. Never looked actually. Despite the boom, it feels odd to be in India and really only get to choose among a dozen or so Indian brands when we're used to having such a variety of imports here in the States.

    Kathy and Lina, whiskey is huge among Indians, both in India and among the diaspora. Huge.

  6. Did you live in Ghana, Calcutta and Nasik by any chance ?

  7. No, sorry, Anonymous, I haven't lived in any of those places. But thanks for stopping by, and hope you'll keep reading!

  8. Wow! Did not know u contributed to a blog! :) So did u get a chance to visit the Soma Vineyard?