Wine’s Final Frontier? Discovering the Wines of India
Updated: Mar 11, 2021
There are now few wine regions on earth that can claim to be truly ‘new’. The vast majority of countries and areas suitable for cultivating wine grapes are now well-established and usually flourishing. Even the so-called New World wine regions, from South Africa to the west coast of America, have modern winemaking histories that now number in the centuries, not decades. As such, there are only a very few remote corners of the globe remaining which hold untapped potential for high-quality viticulture and first-class winemaking; and India is perhaps the most exciting of them all.
Mysterious, colourful, exotic … India has been a compelling and immensely popular destination for visitors from all around the world for decades, drawing travellers in time and again with its mesmerising culture and gorgeous landscapes. However, it’s fair to say that not many of us would associate India with a vibrant winemaking culture. This has not traditionally been a nation of wine consumers, but one of spirit lovers and beer drinkers (and let’s face it, who doesn’t love a Kingfisher beer!?) and it is only is the last few decades, with the growth of the Indian middle class and a new generation of curious young drinkers, that wine has really begun to gain a foothold in this final frontier.
Wine in India – an Epic Legacy
Okay, so it’s perhaps a slight misnomer to imply that there has been no viticulture in India up until recent years. Grapevines have actually been present in India since as far back as the 4th millennium BC, when the medicinal properties of this excellent little fruit were written about by the scholars of the day. Like many other cultures around the world, wine has also at times held great religious importance in India; the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu texts, talk about wine being used as part of religious rituals thanks to its energising, invigorating properties. However, this kind of consumption was very much intended to be moderate, and since that time all the major religions of India, including Hinduism and Buddhism, have condemned the consumption of alcohol to a greater or lesser extent.
Fast forward a few millennia to 1858, when India was brought under colonial rule as part of the expanding British Empire - something of a turning point for a winemaking industry which had mostly laid dormant until that point. With an influx of English aristocrats taking over the administration of India, there was a sudden demand for good-quality wine in European styles. New vineyards were planted across a number of Indian regions, including Kashmir and Surat, and production began to climb steadily. Sadly, just as these fledgling wineries were beginning to find their feet, India was hit in the 1890s by perhaps the single biggest threat ever to the world’s vineyards … the phylloxera mite, an unwelcome visitor from the United States which devastated more or less every wine producing country on earth. India’s vines all but disappeared and the industry fell quiet once more.
Indian Wine in the Present Day
Finally, in the early 1980s, a new spring arrived for Indian wine in the form of a small number of pioneering new winemakers who recognised the country’s potential for great wine, and their momentum has been gathering ever since. This growth is largely supported by changes in the country’s consumers, with a boom in the middle classes who view wine as a symbol of success, as well as highly engaged younger drinkers who are constantly on the lookout for new drinking experiences. The opportunities for domestic wine are huge, not least thanks to the eyewatering taxes which India places on imported wine and spirits - all foreign imports incur a massive 150% tariff, making this a challenging (but not impossible) market for overseas producers and offering domestic winemakers a huge opportunity to meet the Indian market’s ever-increasing demand. This new thirst for wine is clear, with foreign imports increasing by around 14% in 2019 despite the charges, and the time is ripe for India’s wineries to reap the benefits of a domestic market of nearly half a billion potential consumers.
Taxes aside, there are an unusual number of further challenges that the fledgling Indian wine market faces. Efficient transport networks and appropriate storage facilities are few and far between, making distribution something of a headache; whilst attitudes to alcohol and its consumption vary wildly across this largely Hindu nation. In fact, India’s relationship with alcohol in general has long been a complex one. Most famously, Mahatma Gandhi advocated complete nationwide prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s as part of his wider efforts to free India from colonial rule. Gandhi viewed the consumption of alcohol as a pathway to moral and intellectual deterioration and vehemently opposed drinking in any form, and today that legacy still remains in various shapes and sizes across India.
Today, several Indian states including Bihar and Gujarat, the birthplace of Gandhi, practise total prohibition of alcohol. Outside these fully dry states, alcohol laws across the country are confusing and hugely variable, with each state taking its own approach to alcohol legislation. Although many religious holidays are observed with ‘dry days’ across the country, each state has its own rules on minimum drinking ages (which can be anywhere from 18 to 25) and the purchasing of alcohol, which can also vary depending on the type of alcohol in question. That’s not to mention special laws aimed at tourists which allow the sale and consumption of alcohol in specific areas, such as 5-star hotels. It’s baffling, sure, and not showing signs of becoming more straightforward any time soon – but it’s certainly not insurmountable.
Despite these and other complications in India’s relationship with wine, there no doubt about the huge level of new interest from Indian drinkers looking to explore the wonderful world of wine in a healthy way. Change is on the way, and it’s not about overconsumption and conspicuous excess, but the exciting exploration of one of the world’s most special beverages.
A Vast Region of Untapped Potential
As we mentioned earlier, the commercial wine market in India really only sprang into existence in the early 1980s. It has grown slowly but steadily ever since, attracting an increasing amount of foreign interest in the process (always a great sign that a new wine region is headed in the right direction!) Fratelli, for example, is the result of a partnership between three sets of brothers, Italian and Indian, whilst world-famous sparkling wine producer Chandon also has a site here. A select few producers still dominate a vast percentage of the market, with India’s top 3 producers currently enjoying a vast combined market share of approximately 90%, but this situation is ever-changing as demand increases and more and more new producers take the plunge.
Interestingly, of the 123,000 acres of grapevines in India, only around 2% of these are reserved for winemaking, with the rest dedicated to table grapes and raisins; by far the most widely-planted grape variety is Thomson Seedless, which you may know better as Sultana! The 2,500 acres or so that are dedicated to wine grapes are spread across several regions, which tend to be concentrated in the slightly more temperate north. With around 30 operating wineries, Nashik is by far the largest and most well-known of India’s wine regions, home to some of the biggest names in Indian wine, alongside other areas such as Pune, the Hampi Hills, and Bangalore.
Tropical Winemaking ... a Tricky Task!
The hot tropical climate, with summer high temperatures of up to 45 degrees, and mild winters mean that India’s vines never retreat into a winter dormancy like their European cousins, so grape and vine growth have to be carefully controlled with meticulous pruning schedules. Slightly ironically for a country so closely associated with monsoon season, India’s summer growing season is in fact so hot and dry that vine irrigation is all but essential in most areas, as the country’s massive annual rainfall actually occurs all in a very short space of time with long periods of drought through the rest of the year.
In terms of the wines themselves, international grape varieties are king here. Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Shiraz and Tempranillo are all proving themselves to be well-suited to the tropical climate, and as winemakers experiment and gain experience the wines are simply getting better and better.
India, wine’s final frontier, is truly a winemaking force to take note of. Dynamic, vibrant, full of energy and expectation for the future, the nation’s winemakers are working hard to boost the profile of their wines on an international scale and create high-quality premium wine which can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those of any other region on earth. Who knows – perhaps it won’t be long before we consume Indian Sauvignon Blanc or sparkling with just as much gusto as apply to Prosecco or Marlborough Sauvignon!
This article was written as part of a paid partnership with Wines in India.