15th Aug 2011
A “real” new world!
Many of us, it seems, judging from the questions we have received in recent weeks, are still unsure of what the phrase New World means in terms of classifying wine - is it a statement of quality, superiority, inferiority or none of the above? One member opined that the term was completely out of date, like desk name plates in bold letters and Doc Martin shoes. And yes, we do still own a pair.
It is certainly true that the term being used as a catch-all to describe wines that are produced outside the 'traditional' wine-growing areas of Europe, seems very dated. Since at least the 1970's, Chile, California, South Africa, Australia and the like were the New World for most wine drinkers. Then, more recently, New Zealand enters into the consciousness of wine drinkers around the world and has since stolen their hearts, indeed, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has almost become a caricature of itself. Today, however, with established wine growing industries and a detailed understanding of their terroirs, it seems almost a bit offensive to label these countries New World, like a child who hasn't learnt to walk or a trainee chef who can't quite cut the mustard. So, if countries like Australia and Chile are firmly established on the global wine map, where then does the true New World reside?
Try India. A country with an ancient wine-making tradition but a very new and emerging wine producing industry. The first vines were planted long before the 20th Century and, as incredible as it sounds, wine-making has existed throughout most of India's history, encouraged by the Portuguese and subsequent British colonisers. Yet, India must be the country people least associate with wine, which makes its discovery and exploration all the more exciting for the wine lover.
The country's viticultural history begins with its Persian conquerors, who brought vines to India circa 300 BC. Throughout India's history, wine was held in high esteem as the drink of the nobility. When the Portuguese arrived in Goa in the South West of India they planted vines to satisfy their demand; the British followed suit and greatly contributed towards the growth of Indian wine production. Then, similar to the outbreak in Europe, the phylloxera louse arrived towards the end of the 19th Century and devastated many of India's vineyards.
Another great setback for Indian wine production was sadly yet to come: following the country's independence from the British Empire, the ruling government set about to pursue the total prohibition of alcohol. Several of India's states banned the production and consumption of alcohol and the government encourage wine growers to convert to table grape production. India's wine growing industry had all but disappeared until one man decided that it was time for a revitalisation.
Sham Chougule is the man who we should credit with kick-starting wine production in India. He set up the first wine company in 1982 by the name of INDAGE. This was for many years India’s finest domestic producer, exporting Omar Khayyam, India’s first sparkling wine. Collaboration with the French Champagne house Piper Heidsieck only served to enhance the quality and reputation around the world. As urban Indians started to travel, largely due to the I'T book, they developed and brought back a taste for wine; the middle classes were starting to wake up to the pleasures of Champagne and Sauvignon Blanc! The question was now, who would satisfy their demand?
At first glance, India is totally unsuitable for viticulture; the summer growing season is extremely hot, humid and prone to monsoons. The best vineyard sites in India benefit from higher altitudes along slopes and hillsides, essential for moderating the summer heat. The wine growing area is surprisingly diverse, as vineyards in India range from the northwestern state of Punjab down to the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Wine growing activity currently exists in 7 of the country's states with Maharashtra being by far the most important. Only 3 hours drive from Mumbai is where India's wine industry really started to flourish. Welcome to Nashik!
Nashik has become synonymous with Indian wine, thanks by no small part to the effort of Rajeev Samant, CEO of Sula Vineyards. The region - known today as the wine capital of India - is situated in the northwest of Maharashtra, 180 KM from Mumbai on the western edge of the volcanic formation, the Deccan Plateau. The black soils of Nashik and moderate climate with noticeable cool nights in spring meant that the region had long been colonised for table grape growing, a major industry in Maharashtra. One man in the late 90s saw the potential in Nashik for quality wine growing – Rajeev Samant.
Sula planted their first vineyards in 1997, after Rajeev inherited some land from his father, which he originally used to grow mangoes and others crops. The first harvest was in 1999 and they released the first bottles of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc in 2000. They pioneered both these varietals in India, and on release they were widely acclaimed as the best white wines to be produced in India up to that moment. 15 years later and a small vineyard holding has become 1,200 acres, 350,000 cases and still counting!
In the space of 12 years, Sula has become the foremost symbol of Indian wine, not just a wine brand but an icon for the entire Indian wine industry. They are a leader in every respect, not least in wine tourism. Sula has a tasting room and terrace bar, two restaurants, a concert amphitheatre and spa hotel – the first of its kind in India! Today, there are over 40 wineries in Nashik. If the government continues to support viticulture with generous subsidies and can make it easier for winegrowers to distribute and export their wine, there is no reason why we won't see another 40 in 10 years time.
Other promising wineries in Nashik include Vintage Wines whose Cabernet Sauvignon has won critical acclaim and Renaissance Wines, however, we must not omit an extremely important player outside Nashik in the Indian wine scene – Grover. Founded in 1988 by Kanwal Grover and French wine-maker George Vasselle, they set out to bring Bordeaux to Bangalore — to make French-style wines in India using only French varieties, a pioneering effort that continues to benefit from the advice of Michel Rolland.
As our founder, James discovered during his trip to India in March, it is a truly fascinating and intoxicating place, which offers a staggering array of cultural and historical riches for the visitor. A fledging wine industry is perhaps just the latest marvel to emanate from this dynamic and resourceful continent. Whilst wine consumption amongst the general population is overall very low, crucially it is growing and with government support undoubtedly the number of wineries in India will multiply in the coming decades. Chile, Argentina and Australia are all countries with a proud history of producing wine – welcome to India, the real New World.
Leading Indian wine producers
Grover, Chateau Indage, Mandala Valley, Renaissance Wines, Sula Vineyards, Vintage Wines