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Women drinkers key for Indian wine, says Sula Vineyards chief

Wine is fighting back in India as increasing numbers of women and young adults opt for grape over grain, the chief executive of Indian winery Sula Vineyards has told decanter.com.

Wine consumption in India remains the equivalent of ‘what London drinks on a good weekend’, but it is showing double-digit gains every year, according to Rajeev Samant, head of Sula, India’s largest wine group.

Speaking to decanter.com in the UK, where Sula is launching a Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc under the Nasika brand via Laithwaites/Direct Wines, Samant said that young drinkers, and especially women, are helping India’s fledgling wine industry to grow back home.

They have also enabled the sector to rejuvenate itself after a turbulent period following the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008.

‘A minimum of 25% of our wines are consumed by women,’ Samant said. ‘In whisk(e)y, it’s a maximum of 5% women [consumers].’

While it’s still not acceptable for women to be seen drinking alcohol in Indian villages, there has been a shift. ‘In my mother’s generation, it was frowned on to drink wine. Now, there are many women going to college in the cities,’ he said.

There is also more interest in wine among top restaurants and hotels. Samant highlights Trishna in Mumbai, which also has a sister venue in London and stocks Sula wines. ‘In 2000, it was red wine or white wine – the guy had two wines on his list. Today, they have 60 wines on the list.’

There is, though, a long way to go. Wine is ‘obviously still a very urban, upper middle class phenomenon,’ said Samant. Per capita consumption across India’s 1.2bn population is measured in millilitres rather than litres.

Total India wine production was pegged at 1.3m cases in 2012 in a report by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service. This is small-fry versus a 100m-case-plus whisk(e)y market and the USDA report says the short-term outlook for wine is uncertain, at best. Wine must also compete for attention against emerging vodka and beer sectors.

Still, Samant said wine is in a better place than five years ago, when terrorist attacks in Mumbai led to an overnight collapse in hotel sales on the eve of the tourist season. ‘It was very depressing,’ said Samant. ‘We had to react by bringing out cheaper wines [at INR200/GBP2]’ he said.

This turned out to be a silver lining. ‘We realised that there are all these people interested in wine who can’t pay INR500-a-bottle,’ Samant said.

Sula’s net sales are rising by 25% year-on-year, Samant said, and are projected to top INR2bn in the financial year to the end of March 2014.

The firm has annual volumes of around 600,000 cases, versus just 40,000 cases 13 years ago. It sells 90% of its wine domestically and works with around 200 growers on long-term contracts.

Tourism is also flowing back into the Maharashtra state. Sula welcomes 150,000 visitors per year at its winery complex in Nashik, where guests are treated not only to wine but also a musical melange of Bollywood and Bob Dylan – the latter courtesy of Samant studying at California’s Stanford University.

In terms of winemaking, Samant said India is experimenting with several varietals, including Tempranillo, Nero d’Avola, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Riesling is showing particular promise for Sula at present. ‘Nobody thought you could do a Riesling in India. It’s a cool climate grape. But, it’s selling like hot cakes,’ said Samant.

His main problem, however, is the country’s tangled web of bureaucracy. ‘It causes huge problems,’ said Samant. ‘Each state requires different labels, and there is a completely different tax structure.’

Some states, including Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa, have at least taken steps to either reduce or eliminate excise tax on wine produced within their borders, according to the USDA.

In the meantime, Samant has one eye on the Direct Wines deal, which he believes ‘massively expands’ Sula’s potential in the UK.

Written by Chris Mercer

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