Wines of India: Zin and zen

The tasting room is pure California.  Dominated by a blue mosaic balcony bar with a panoramic view of rolling vineyards, the open floor space is gently lit by suspended wine bottle lamps, flanked with backlit cases in wood-paneled walls and a picture window which reveals the pristine bottling area. A small boutique area offers t-shirts, stemware and ice buckets emblazoned with the winery’s logo:  Sula Vineyards.

The two thousand square foot room was in fact designed by West Coast architects Andy Hope and Laurel Roth.  The wine that is produced and bottled here, however, is anything but.  Sula Vineyards, which produced more than two million bottles in 2007, is one of the largest producers of wine in India.

Yeah, India.  According to Sula founder Rajeev Samant, “For us, it’s an industry whose time has come. With more education and more affluence and good jobs available right out of college for today’s young professionals, it’s very natural for them to drink more wine.”

India now boasts about fifty vineyards, mostly centered in the western state of Maharashtra, where Sula owns three hundred acres in the Gangapur and Dindori districts of the Nashik region, an area which produces ninety percent ofIndia’s table grapes.  With the growing profitability of wine grapes, generally noble varieties like Zinfandel, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, more and more contract farmers are making the switch.  The climate is comfortably cool, the soil well-drained, and there’s a focus on focus is on sustainable agriculture utilizing a minimum of chemicals.

Despite religious taboos against alcohol consumption and old-school resistance to anything but whiskey (a hangover, if you will, from colonial days), at least some of wine’s growing popularity in India can be ascribed to the influence of Bollywood, the colloquial term for India’s film and television industry.  Recent releases have portrayed wine drinking as both sophisticated and acceptable, even for women—who have traditionally been teetotalers throughout India.  Bollywood is centered in Mumbai, Maharashtra’s capital.  The result is an Indian wine market that last year hit $100 million and has been growing by 25% annually since 2003.  Domestically, sales have surpassed a million cases.  Beside Sula, both Grover and Chateau Indage wines can be found outside the Indian sub-continent in increasing numbers, mostly in London, Dubai and Singapore.

Chateau Indage

And how’s the wine?   Admittedly, it still has a way to go, and that many Indian wines tend to be flabby, sweet and simple—a complaint not uncommon when a wine industry is going through birthing pangs.  The search for ‘terroir’ identity and national character in a wine can take many vintages, but at least one expert—Tom Stenson of Sotheby’s World Wine Encyclopedia—has sung some recent  praises, claiming that the sparkling wines of Chateau Indage has “a technical level of production as high as in Champagne itself.”

That’s a pretty good nod.  And when it comes to growth, sheer numbers are in India’s favor: with census figures hovering around one billion, if a mere four percent of India’s citizens develops a taste for wine, that’s nearly forty million individuals—roughly the population of California.

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