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Nashik wine-tasting trail: Exploring India's Napa Valley
CNNGo Mumbai editor Sita Wadhwani escapes Mumbai for a weekend of breezy sunsets, sizzling kebabs and hilly landscapes, all washed down with some surprisingly rich Indian Cabernet
On a recent weekend, CNNGo’s Mumbai editor Sita Wadhwani, oenophile Bhisham Mansukhani and Groove Temple’s CEO Kaveer Shahani set aside 36 hours to undertake a comprehensive tour of Maharashtra’s grape growing region in the Western Ghats, approximately 180 kms and four hours outside Mumbai.
Stretching from Igatpuri to Dindori, we closed in on seven of Nashik’s best local wineries, some of which are usually closed to visitors for tasting, and put them on our dream itinerary for the ideal Nashik wine tasting weekend.
Event company Groove Temple has been recommending Indian wines for everything from music fests to weddings and business conferences. But when CEO Kaveer Shahani suggested I try an Indian wine at his home for dinner, my face cringed, "I'm not drinking that," I said. He poured me a glass anyway and the same weekend I found myself en route to where this wine is made. Over the next day and a half I learned that Nashik is where table grapes are grown, the highest grape productivity in the world, and where India’s nascent wine industry is growing up.
All of Nashik's wineries have sprung up within the last 15 years, with Sula Vineyards being the oldest, established in 1999. Given that all the wine-making action around Nashik has taken place within the decade, with the harvests in March, the wines we tasted went back only as far as the 2006 vintages. "We don't know how Indian wine will mature with age and whether the wine has the capacity to get better with time in the bottle," explains Mansukhani. "Indian wines are generally considered drink-now wines."
India produces wines from a quartette of French grape varieties -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Shiraz -- and the odd Dessert and Sparkling Wine. Most wine producers don't grow all of their own grapes and depend on contract farmers. Some farmers won’t grow the Merlot, for example, because the yield isn’t profitable despite the contrary belief of one winemaker from Bordeaux who frequently visits Nashik.
Like her, several young wine makers, those I met from Australia, France and South Africa, live for months in Maharashtra's quiet rural hinterland far from Mumbai’s fun life, trying to work out formulas to evolve Indian wine. They cope with harsh realities -- heat, humidity, storage, marketing and distribution issues -- so that what ends up at your table at a stand alone restaurant in the city is not totally "cooked" as they say (or "raped," as Abhijit Kabir of Indus Wines puts it).
Kabir makes some of India’s most promising whites and in an unpretentious, animated Indian accent, he talks about his wines as if they were women. And I learned that there are wine makers in India too, who have passion and commitment. Take 20-something Ravi Gurnani, who pours his Estate Reserve Shiraz to the 30 odd people who drive up to his family-owned York Winery every Saturday. He's only in his first vintage, but the size and set up of Gurnani's facility suggests he's all geared for growth. And he couldn’t look more at home running up and down the stairs between tank and tasting room, where the sun sets over his shoulder on the Gangapur dam, with a deep and pretty view of the hills in the distance.
Saturday: Zampa Vineyards, Indus Wines and Châteaux D’Ori
If you leave Mumbai at 7:45am you can cruise into Igatpuri, or Sanjegaon to be specific, by 10:45am.
10.45: Zampa Vineyards
A smart looking building appears on the horizon after a short drive past pretty farm fields. This is where veterans of the alcoholic beverage industry in India, Deepak Roy and Ravi Jain of Vallée de Vin make Zampa wine under the supervision of chief wine maker, South African Nicolas Van Aarde. The vineyard's sunny courtyards and brunch-friendly patios are the backdrop for tasting wines -- of which three or four are said to be on their way to delighting the palate this year.
11.45: Indus Wines
Abhijit Kabir of Terroir India Wineries proudly claims that his company Indus Wines invented a new sub-region of Nashik. The "Igatpuri Climbs" in Nashik valley, which presents an interesting play of slopes and benches. They’re the first vineyard in the subcontinent to implement Gravity Flow Design which capitalizes on gravitational forces to -- gently -- move grape from level to level and process to process until it becomes wine. Wines here are conceived, sculpted and honed by the reputed UK-based Australian wine business consultant John Worontschak.
"The fruit and alcohol of Indus’ fresh tasting Sauvignon Blanc are well integrated and the Shiraz exhibits restrained richness,” said Florence Fabricant at the New York Times in 2008. These wines were my first 'secret' discovery of the trip, affirmed by Business Standard when they wrote about Indus wines selling by word of mouth. It's true. I'd never heard of them. Worse, it was what I had mistakenly turned my nose up to at Kaveer's home, when he poured me a glass of their Cabernet Sauvignon.
One of the main draws of the Nashik wine trail is that you can buy Indian wine in the condition it was meant to be drunk, at the vineyard rate. Not off some wine shop where it's been cooking in a front glass counter under the sun, weeks after being off-loaded from a non AC truck. Plus, you're purchasing this wine minus the 50 to 75 percent markup that restaurants and hotels slap on. For example, we bought a Reveilo Reserve Shiraz, worth Rs 1,045 a bottle after taxes and duties, for Rs 700. A Rs 400 Indus Cabernet Sauvignon which would have cost Rs 638 in a wine shop and approximately Rs 1,800 in a five star hotel worth its salt.
"There’s no incentive to buy Indian wine in a restaurant," states oenophile Bhisham Mansukhani flatly. Which is a good argument to get into over a quick midday meal at Chateau Indage's Tiger Hills Wine Bar in Nashik.
15:00: Château D’Ori
Onto Dindori, an exciting sub-region of the Nasik district an hour and 15 minutes from Nashik center. Home to the region's second largest winery after Sula. The Château D’Ori estate reminds our party of the classic Californian experience, with its sweeping views and long vineyards rolling over the hills. And they have some unique offerings inside to further recommend you do the detour to this winery. According to Mansukhani, D'Ori makes the best Cabernet Shiraz blend in India, matching Grover's La Reserve. They also do a rare straight Merlot and are the only ones to attempt a Cabernet Merlot.
Saturday sunset: York Winery, Sula Vineyards and Beyond
17:45-19:30 York Winery for sunset
The idea is to make it to York Winery for sunset at the Tasting Room overlooking their six acre vineyards, the Gangapur Dam lake and the hills beyond. The view is a tad better than at the neighboring Sula Vineyards and the atmosphere quite different. That's why you head to York for bossa nova music and gentle breezes and Sula Vineyards after sunset to drink, eat and party.
Our evening discussion topic over cheese and crackers at York, is on the pricing of Indian wine. We picture the average Indian consumer -- uncertain, ignorant and only beginning to get into the good stuff. How do you wean him or her off spirits at a stage when Indian wineries are only starting to make good wine but the prices are through the roof? What they’re competing against is a litre of Bacardi at Rs 700. For the average 25 year old, that’s the mentality. And would they buy a bottle of wine at Rs 1,000 and up?
20:00-22:00: Sula Vineyards, dinner and Beyond
For Rajeev Samant, founder and owner of Sula Vineyards demand is not short. Samant features on CNNGo's list of stars on the Indian wine frontier. Writes Mansukhani in the article, "Ten years on, Samant’s company is one of the country’s most recognizable wine brands…his most significant contribution apart from the wine itself is opening Nashik up as a wine destination. Sula winery was the first to have a tasting room in the region. It grows popular by the day with locals and out-of-towners and lots of young people driving in for a tour of the winery, a taste and dinner. Rajeev also created SulaFest, the country’s only annual wine and music festival held at an amphitheater near the winery in January."
After a pre-dinner drink at Sula’s 34-ft bar running continuously from the inner room to the open balcony, the choices for dinner are rather straightforward. Little Italy serving vegetarian Italian and Kareem’s for kebabs, curries and biryani. If you're lucky to book the cabin Beyond, located on the vineyard, at least a month in advance, this is the ideal accommodation option. Budget hotels in Nashik (Taj's Gateway, Tata's Ginger, Sarovar Lily Portico and Express Inn) are the only other alternatives.
Sunday: Reveilo winery and back to Mumbai
"After a first crush of grapes just five years ago, Reveilo by Vintage Wines has a presence on nearly all major five-star hotels wine lists, is a darling of the expat community that yearns for good Indian wine and pretty much dominates the premium segment of wine which it incidentally also pioneered," writes Mansukhani. Owners Kiran and Yatin Patil have invested in French oak barrels, air-conditioned warehousing and trucks. They’re the first producer to introduce India's first vintage of Italian grape varieties -- Nero D’Avola, Sangiovese and Grillo -- and India's first barrel-aged white wine, under the supervision of Reveilo’s Italian wine maker Andrea Valentinuzzi.
Reveilo is an important vineyard, often overlooked, but it has shown the way, is the consensus among my travel companions. The very fact that they're the only Indian wine producer to sell more to hotels than through retail is an endorsement in itself.
I did not exit the vineyard without a bottle of their delicious Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (the best dessert wine on the market) and the estate bottled barrel-aged Chardonnay Reserve 2006. In fact, 2010 was a good year for white wine grapes, the climate being cooler the year before.
Rough ratio: In 36 hours I swallowed more than I spat and bought more than I could carry.
So while industry pioneers look North with an eye to opening up other regions of India for wine making, Nashik, India’s traditional grape growing region is poised to become the country’s first true wine trail experience. Moreover the wine looks promising. And as Worontschak once said, "You can't drink whiskey if you have to go to work the next day...more people in India will be drinking wine."
Groove Temple Entertainment offers the Bespoke Nashik Wine Trail Experience. Over a two day trip, guests visit five to six wineries, tasting some of the best Indian wines available today, guided by a wine-tasting expert. Do note that only three of the wineries mentioned above currently receive wine tourists without prior appointment.
Some of the Nashik wineries are also open to hosting special occasions on their premises. Costs vary depending on the number of persons, menu options and the choice of hotel. Travel is recommended by road, though flights and train options are also available. Groove Temple has a dedicated events and travel desk to meet inquiries related to tours and special events. Contact Ruhi at +91 9004177444; email@example.com