Wine tourism takes off in India's answer to the Barossa

Visitors enjoy wine at the lounge bar at the Sula Vineyard, India's first vineyard resort, in Nashik.
Visitors enjoy wine at the lounge bar at the Sula Vineyard, India's first vineyard resort, in Nashik. Photo: AFP

In the bar overlooking the twisting vines in India's answer to the Barossa Valley, a group of friends from Mumbai enjoy a weekend getaway -- and a chance to brush up on their new wine-drinking hobby.

"I've been teetotal all my life, but quite recently I started to drink wine. It's a growing trend," said 30-year-old housewife Jol Kapadia, sipping on a glass of Chenin Blanc at Sula Vineyards.

The winery is based in the fertile western district of Nashik, India's grape-growing capital and a three-hour drive through the mountains from the teeming metropolis of Mumbai.

Boasting India's first vineyard resort, billed as an "antidote for stressed out city folk," Sula is luring crowds of urban middle-class tourists who are eager to learn more about wine.

"Our Indian palates are still being trained," said retired colonel Pratap Nair, on a tour and tasting session with a group of fellow ex-officers and their wives from Pune, another city a few hours away.

Traditionally, Nair explained, quaffing wine in India meant downing cheap port to get drunk.

It was a "man's thing" and not associated with a healthy lifestyle or even dinner -- unless you were among the tiny elite who could afford imported vintages.

Access to foreign bottles has been hugely limited by import duties and taxes, so pioneering domestic vineyards are keen to promote a European-style wine culture.

Sula, which has a 70 per cent share of India's wine market, is using the vineyard visits to this end. The company says 600 to 700 daytrippers or resort guests drop by each weekend for a tour, a meal or a drink on the balcony bar.

The mixed clientele on a recent Saturday suggested that wine's appeal is broadening: motorbikes as well as BMWs filled the car park, while some women in saris and others in jeans enjoyed the sunset views.

"They're coming with their families and they're open to the idea of wine," said Sula's hospitality executive Swapnil Dangarikar.

They are encouraged to enjoy wine with food: the menu at the on-site Indian restaurant suggests novel pairings such as Cabernet Shiraz with chicken tikka masala.

Nair remains to be convinced by the quality of Indian wine -- "you can't compare it to French, South African or Californian," he said -- but he praised Sula's encouragement of a "family experience".

Savvy marketing techniques are crucial for vineyards in India, where spirits and beer are the favourite drinks, advertising alcohol is banned and each state imposes its own, often crippling, taxes and regulation.

Just 0.01 litres of wine were drunk per person in 2010 according to US Trade Data and Analysis figures, compared with 0.69 litres in China -- now a major international wine market -- and 45.70 litres in France.

But the small Indian market is expanding rapidly, with consumption rising 40 per cent in the three years from 2007.

Much of the surging demand is said to be driven by women, who have rising disposable incomes and see wine as a more sophisticated and socially acceptable drink than beer or whisky.

"We're going to see a tipping point in the next couple of years in domestic wine," said Myles Mayall, a buyer and educator at The Wine Society of India, which sells imported and local cases.

While an Indian wine revival began 30 years ago, "only in the last four years has it been any good," he said.

It has not been a smooth ride for smaller vineyards in Nashik.

Hambir Phadtare set up Mountain View winery in 2004 amid optimism over the Indian wine scene, but he sold off almost half of his acres after the economic slowdown hit.

"When the hype was created, a lot of people jumped into the act without necessarily studying the whole thing," he said.

Many struggled to distribute their bottles and to master tropical wine-making -- still an experimental process, with limited grape varieties flourishing in warmer climes.

Yet confidence in Indian wine is slowly growing, and Phadtare believes a key to success lies in wine tourists.

He is restructuring his business into a smaller "boutique" winery, with a tasting room and a restaurant on the roof.

"People still know very little about what wine is all about, but there's increasing interest," he said, mentioning executives who want to know their Malbec from their Merlot when on business trips abroad.

Faith in the Indian market has also come from foreign brands: there are now two Indo-Italian wineries in west India, while Moet Hennessy has bought up land in Nashik and plans to produce an Indian sparkling wine.

"It's a growing market, a lot of potential is there. Wine has a great future," said Moet Hennessy estate manager Rajesh Dixit.

AFP

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