India's two top wineries are producing world-class wines, foreign investment has flooded in and Indian wines should soon become available to a wider market. WILLIAM LYONS reports.
Just launched in the UK is La Reserve, a Cabernet Sauvignon crafted in the Bordeaux tradition. Such wines are born every day, but few can claim to be one of India’s premium Indian wines. Its producer, Bangalore’s Grover Vineyards, hopes that the wine will follow in the footsteps of wines such as Château Musar and find a niche in Britain’s cluttered fine wine market. For Kapil Grover, director of India’s Grover Vineyards, this is a major step in realising his father’s ambition of establishing India’s place in the global wine family. India’s bid began with the introduction, by Chateau Indage, of the sparkling white Omar Khayyam, which Champagne expert Tom Stevenson served at the launch of the first edition of the Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Further praise came from Jancis Robinson MW when she argued that it could hold its own against some French Champagnes she had tasted.
La Reserve has recently found favour with a number of wine critics who have likened it to a good crianza or reserva Rioja. It has also enjoyed favourable comparisons with Wynn’s Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Robert Mondavi’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Inward investment and the cult of flying winemakers have led to a dramatic improvement over recent years in the quality of Indian wines, giving rise to a belief that India can improve its market share in the global wine industry.
Two vineyards in particular dominate the business of Indian wines: Grover Vineyards and Chateau Indage. Grover Vineyards is based at the foot of the Nandi Hills, 35km from the southern city of Bangalore. Chateau Indage lies 180km southeast of Mumbai (Bombay) on the river Kukdi.
Grover Vineyards started life 15 years ago as a partnership between French winemaker George Vasselle and the Grover family. The aim was to produce, for the first time, French grape varieties suitable for wine production in India. After looking at 21 sites, the present 40ha (hectare) site was chosen for its similarities to French terroir. The project uses only French wine grapes, and has attracted a number of French oenologists, keen to study the suitability of French grapes to Indian conditions. In 1995 the project attracted the attention of Michel Rolland. Spending at least two weeks of the year in Bangalore, Rolland enjoys the challenge of working in a country where there are only two seasons: one dry and one very humid and wet. His goal is ripe fruit and riper tannins. One way to achieve this is by extending vinification to produce softer, rounder tannins. Grover produces three wines that are available in the UK: its white blanc de blancs de Clairette; a red from Cabernet Sauvignon; and a rosé. In 1996 Veuve Cliquot-Ponsardin expanded its overseas portfolio to include a share in Grover vineyards.
Chateau Indage was originally developed under the supervision of a young French oenologist, Raphael Brisbois. He was dispatched to India in the 1980s by Piper-Heidsieck, following a request by Sham Chougule, a Bombay millionaire. His mandate was to provide technical assistance in the production of fine, sparkling, méthode champenoise Indian wines. They selected a site with a cool climate and a lime-rich soil, built into the side of the Sahyadri mountains. The vineyard has expanded to 243ha and is now overseen by Indian-born winemaker, Abhay Kewadkar. From transplanted rootstocks they grow Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Ugni Blanc, and produce about 10 different wines with 40% of the production exported to Europe. However, it is also sold in the USA, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, the UK, Japan and, surprisingly, France.
Indage is primarily known for the dry, fragrant, sparkling blend Omar Khayyam and the slightly heavier Marquise de Pompadour, but also produces two reds: Anarkali, a Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Bangalore Purple; and Soma, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Arkeshyam and Maroo, and two whites: the oaked Chhabri; and Soma, a blend of the Arkavati grape with France’s Ugni Blanc. According to HR Ahuja, vice president of Chateau Indage, people are starting to appreciate Indian wine with Indian food. Mamun Ahmed, chief sommelier at London’s Michelin-starred Indian restaurant, Tamarind, explains why: ‘If the food has ingredients of ginger, garlic, onion and local herbs, wine marries with them beautifully. Moreover, despite common convention, a light chilli content in the dish will open the taste buds.’ A dish with green, grassy, zesty herbs like coriander and basil goes very well with light floral wines like Sauvignon Blanc. More earthy dishes with mushrooms and meat go well with aged Cabernet and Chardonnay. Is this the end for Britain’s beer and balti culture? As Ahmed admits, the quality and availability of Indian wines are still some way behind that of many other wine-producing countries. Yet if Grover’s La Reserve can find a niche in the market, maybe it will give India the foothold she craves in Britain’s wine market. Given the progress India has made so far, and with a flood of foreign investment, the future looks very bright indeed for Indian wines.
Grover Vineyards and Chateau Indage wines are available from www.everywine.co.uk.
Written by WILLIAM LYONS