Ben Stubbs spends a weekend among the vines north of Mumbai, where the shiraz is as spicy as the curries.
THE two Indian businessmen from Pune swill their glasses of zinfandel and look at each other with knotted brows. "Is this how I should hold it?" inquires one to the other. He shrugs and makes a show of gurgling the wine, like he would his mouthwash, before swallowing.
This sort of scenario is not as strange as you would think. While the idea of an Indian wine district would seem absurd to most visiting the subcontinent, there is a bourgeois movement north of Mumbai that hopes its "Umbria in India" label will stick.
I am in Nasik, a four-hour drive north of Mumbai in the steamy lakeside hills that are surrounded by vineyards and boutique cellar doors offering aromatic spicy curries to pair with their latest cabernet sauvignon varietals.
As the middle class of India continues to explode so, too, do their tastes and a collection of canny entrepreneurs has tapped into this growth by planting thousands of acres of syrah, viognier, chenin blanc and malbec grapes across the hills on the plateau nestled above Mumbai to stimulate the beginning of the Indian wine industry.
They even drink wine in Bollywood movies now.
I am staying at Sula Vineyards, the biggest producer of Indian wines. As we drive in, the side of the road is full of ripe vines and pink roses. The Sula accommodation, Beyond, is all infinity pools and airconditioned suites and as we approach the slick-looking cellar door my hopes are high.
I sign up for a winery tour with a gaggle of suit- and sari-wearing Indians here for a long weekend. Our guide, Anish, shows us the two pneumatic crushing machines, the bottling plant and the line of 95,000-litre stainless-steel tanks on a spotless floor. It's rare to see this sort of cleanliness in India. Sula produces 4.5 million bottles of wine, not bad for a non-wine-drinking country, and only 5-10 per cent is exported. The Indian tourists pepper Anish with questions on the harvest. He tells us that because the temperature doesn't drop significantly in Nasik there are actually two life cycles for the grapes. Even though they are in the northern hemisphere, they harvest on the same timetable as southern hemisphere producers and prune the vines during the monsoon.
The wine tour of Sula feels like a Universal Studios tag along. Anish reads from a script and the accompanying Indians grab the brochures and flavour wheels as we make our way past the cellars and bottling plants to the tasting rooms.
The colour-coded flavour wheel has some good advice, instructing budding connoisseurs to search for the orange blossom aromas and the blackcurrant finishes in their wines, though as I spin the wheel and read of the other suggestions I see that the Indian wine industry is prepared for all situations, with notes on the cabbage, wet dog and burnt toast surprises you might just find in your chenin or cabernet.
Sula's signature is the Mosaic, a grenache and syrah blend. We drink it chilled because, as Anish says, "room temperature is quite different here". I'm expecting tar, though it isn't bad. I don't think Penfolds or McWilliams have anything to worry about just yet, though as I watch the tasters around me with eyes closed and lips puckered it is an interesting cultural interaction. The winery is buzzing with activity as Indians order bottle after bottle on the open-air deck. There is an Indian wedding next door and I see a group of South African backpackers arrive to enjoy a night of cheap wine on the terrace.
I meet the chief winemaker at Sula, Ajoy Shaw, who has worked harvests in Adelaide, California and Bordeaux to refine his techniques. We walk through the vineyard and he tells me the Indian wine industry is growing 20 per cent every year. "We're slowly overcoming the stigma that wine has here. They even drink wine in Bollywood movies now, which is good for us."
Ajoy leaves me to enjoy a glass in the twilight. I ask for the Italian plate with my malbec. "Is the salami from India?" I ask the waiter. He responds with the characteristic Indian head shake. Is it a yes? A maybe? I err on the side of caution and just get the crackers. While the view from the balcony of Sula is spectacular and you can forget momentarily about the chaos of India, the smell of a butter naan and palak paneer being brought out to guests reminds me where we are. While it seems refined and cosmopolitan when I order carbonara pasta to go with a cabernet sauvignon from the restaurant, I'm reminded of the tastes of where I am. The pasta is gluggy cement and I only notice after my second bite that I'm the only one not eating Indian food. The move to adopt foreign practices only goes so far it seems.
The next winery on my itinerary is York, down the road on the shore of the Gangapur Lake. They are only two years old and have 64 hectares of vines. The cellar door is chic and offers great views across the hills. I meet the operations manager, Sachin Darade, who tells me that they've just begun working in partnership with Chandon. York produces a variety of zinfandel, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and cabernet varieties and the cheapest comes in at 395 rupees ($7.50), showing that despite the possibility for pretension in this emerging industry, it is still affordable.
Darade and I sit down to a lunch of spicy chicken tikka, a perfect pairing with our shiraz, he tells me.
Across the water is the city of Nasik; a reminder that noisy, polluted India is never far away.
Nasik is one of the holiest places in India and it is the location of the mind-boggling Kumbh Mela pilgrimage that is held every 12 years. At the last event in 2001 there were an estimated 70 million Hindu devotees on the Godavari River in the city.
We begin eating as Darade refills our glasses. The spices of the chicken have me reaching for the water, though Darade tells me to try the wine, and he's right. The spicy shiraz accentuates the chicken perfectly. We finish the meal with the fried dessert, gulab jamun, and accompany it with late-harvest viognier, just like dessert wine. Sachin extends his glass and says, "Badhai ho" (cheers in Hindi) as we drain our third glass for the day.
I leave with a bag full of bottles showcasing the grapes of Nasik the next day. As the car speeds towards Mumbai I look back to the golden hills that stretch to the lake. I see the vineyards below in the haze and I notice that if you squint, just for a second, it looks a little like Umbria.
The writer travelled with assistance from Thai Airways.
Thai Airways flies from Sydney to Mumbai with a stopover in Bangkok. Return flights including taxes from $1493. www.thaiairways.com.
From Mumbai it is a four-hour drive north along State Highway. It is far better to hire a driver or taxi in Mumbai than to risk driving yourself.
Beyond at Sula Vineyards has luxury accommodation options from $114 a night. The resort has an infinity pool, spa, restaurant and free transfers to the cellar. sulawines.com.
yorkwinery.com; nashikwines.com; indianwine.com.
The festivals of Nasik
Apart from the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage there are many more laid back events and festivals around Nasik worth checking out:
The York Live harvesting festival is held at the end of January, with bands, food, wine and a stomping session to get the crush under way. yorkwinery.com.
Sulafest is the annual wine festival held at Sula from February 4, with music and wine in the attached Greek amphitheatre. sulawines.com.
The Nasik Festival is a citywide event with food, wine, sports and dancing during January. maharashtratourism.net.