If Indian travelers wanted to go wine-tasting 10 years ago, they’d travel to major players such as Italy, France or California.
But now domestic and international travelers alike can sample locally produced wines just outside of the major cities of India.
The best example? Nashik – in Maharashtra state, about 100 miles northeast of Mumbai – which has emerged as the “Wine Capital of India” over the past decade.
“Nashik has a very rich history,” Rajeev Suresh Samant, CEO Sula Vineyards, tells CNN.
“It’s considered to be the place where the oceans were churned and some of the mythical nectar called somras (an intoxicating mixture made from the extract of som plants) dropped.
“That’s very apt, because today Nashik is the center of Indian wine production.”
Reviving a lost tradition
Nashik might be ancient, but wine production is a fairly new thing for the region.
When Samant returned from California to his family’s land in India in the 1990s, he immediately noticed the country’s lack of local wine. Given the terroir’s potential, a rising middle class and a swelling population, Samant saw an opportunity.
In 1999, he opened Sula Vineyards – Nashik’s first winery.
“Nashik was always famous for its grapes and, in fact, India had a tradition of wine 500 years ago,” explains Samant. “There were vineyards in Kashmir and outside of Hyderabad, then for 200 or 300 years, wine was totally lost.”
Wine production dwindled for several reasons, including a devastating phylloxera insect outbreak in the 19th century, a cultural shift toward beer under British rule (1858-1947) and prohibitive alcohol laws established by the Constitution of India in 1950.
Having studied wine in California, Samant aims to produce bottles of an international standard using time-honored methods.
“We have a temperature and humidity-controlled barrel room with more than 1,300 oak barrels of shiraz, Rasa Shiraz and cabernet sauvignon,” Karan Vasani, the chief winemaker at Sula, tells CNN.
“Oak and wine is a match made in heaven. The oak just lifts up the wine, makes it smoother, richer and more complex.”
Vasani ages the wines anywhere between 12 and 18 months in barrels to achieve the desired effect.
“There is really no fixed time – aging wine in barrel is a little bit like slow cooking, you just have to keep tasting until you know it’s done,” Vasani adds.
Sula’s flagship wine is a 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon that’s bursting with notes of dark fruit, spices and tobacco.
“We make really small quantities … so it’s really only available at the tasting room,” says Vasani. “It’s full of flavor and a lot of complexity – you can drink it now, of course, but it will get even better with time.”
The company also produces popular white wines, including sauvignon blancs, chenin blanc and riesling. Currently, Sula exports wines to about 25 countries around the world, which also helps to increase awareness of Indian wines.
Wine of the times
At home, India wine tourism is still in its infancy.
According to “India Wine Insider 2017”, a study conducted by India’s first Master of Wine Sonal Holland, there are currently only 2 million to 3 million wine consumers in a country of 1.34 billion.
But that’s rapidly changing.
There are at least 30 wineries peppered around the Nashik region alone, including award-winning addresses such as York Winery and Soma Vine Village.
According to Holland’s report, areas such as Delhi, Goa and Bangalore are also seeing momentum.
“India is so ready for wine,” says Vasani. “It’s something that tourists in France and in California take for granted, Indians are just learning about it and they’re responding to it amazingly well.”
At the moment, Samant estimates that wine accounts for less than 1% of all alcoholic beverages consumed in India.
“But it’s growing much, much faster than any other alcoholic beverage,” says Samant. “Wine is going to be a very significant beverage in the years to come.”