Drink: Bombay Bacchus

Popping a bottle of fizz today? Rose Murray Brown meets the Indian vintner who hopes it might be one of his
Click to follow
UNTIL THE AGE of 15, Sham Chougule had never seen a car or a train. Born into a poor farming family in a village near Kolhapur, in Maharashtra, western India, he had no idea he would ever go to the big city. He certainly never contemplated becoming one of India's leading industrialists, let alone its first wine pioneer.

Today, at 63, Chougule is an eminence grise of the Indian engineering industry. He is also a man with an extraordinary mission: he plans to con-vert his fellow countrymen to the modern wine culture, with a range of Indian wines - red, white, sparkling and fortified. He is busy setting up deals with major wine producers in California, Australia, Germany and Spain, and intends to import their wines in bulk. He also means to export increasing volumes of Indian wines to the west.

Chougule seems undeterred by the fact that India's national beverage in beer, arguably bet- ter suited to the nation's diet. Wine consumption here is a minuscule 0.007 litres per person per year, compared to the UK's 16 litres. A number of religions and at least one state in India prohibit alcohol. But Chougule expresses characteristic optimism: "There are estimated to be 17 million millionaires in India today. Three hundred of them are already members of my new wine connoisseurs' club."

This proselytiser's determined vision of a modern Indian wine culture began almost two decades ago. In 1982, convinced that he could rival the world's best sparkling wines, he set up India's most technologically advanced winery near Narayangaon in his home state. He was inspired by his first contact with wine in the late Fifties when, as a prosperous 21-year-old industrialist working on projects in the Gulf, he travelled to Paris to buy engineering equipment and drank his first glass of Champagne.

"I had grown up among vineyards, where the indigenous grapes like Arkavati and Arkeshyam were used for the table, but I believed that there was the potential to make wine." Chougule was encouraged by India's long viticultural history. Prior to phylloxera infestation in the 1890s, vineyards had flourished in Kashmir, Surat, Golconda and Maharashtra ever since the vine's intro- duction to north-west India from Persia in the 4th millennium BC. In 1982, there were 50,000 hectares of vineyards in India, 70 per cent of which were in Chougule's home state, but only 1 per cent of which were used to produce wines.

He knew that to achieve his dream, he would need foreign expertise. After much persuasion, Chougule enlisted the services of Champagne Technologie, a subsidiary of Piper Hiedsieck. Within six months, a team of French consultants had identified an east-facing site with a 24 per cent chalk content at 780m above sea level, close to the government's proposed Kukadi Dam, 180km inland from Bombay. They also recommended high culture trellising, which prevents grapes from scorching and maximises aeration, thus reducing the risk of disease.

"I initially invested $5m in the project, planting 80 acres of Chardonnay, with 20 grower contracts to supply Ugni Blanc grapes," he says. By 1992, Chougule was selling 250,000 bottles a year of his first wine to the UK alone, a fizz called Omar Khayyam made by the same method as Champagne. For the Indian and Japanese markets, he upped the sugar dosage and called it Marquis de Pompadour. He sold his brut and demi-sec fizz to 12 different countries.

Today, he sells 2 million bottles of white, red, sparkling and fortified wines in India and abroad, and also bottles imported Italian vermouth for Cinzano at his winery for the Indian market. Despite sales of his original brut fizz having slowed down here, the novelty with drinkers has worn off and inconsistency has crept into the quality, Chougule hopes to increase production to 10 million bottles and to expand his 600 acre vineyard to 2,500 acres within the next decade, even if there are a few things to resolve first.

"One of my biggest problems is recruiting foreign consultants," he says. His winery, on a plateau in the Sahyadri mountains, is remote. In summer, midday temperatures reach 35 degrees centigrade in the shade. The nearest nightlife is in Pune (Poona), about 50 miles away on typically poor Indian roads. But he has high hopes that his most recent recruit, a 30-year-old Adelaide University oenology graduate, will stay the course.

Costs have escalated since the project began. Labour is notoriously cheap but water prices have increased, and land prices in Narayangaon's pollution-free zone have multiplied to $5,000 per acre. But Chougule may have found a solution in a 500 acre gravel plateau at nearby Bota, where the land is a tenth of the price: "No one is interested as there is no water there." With his engineering company, Chougule can easily install equipment to pump water for drip irrigation from a river 305 metres below.

He is now one of nine wine producers in India, but Chougule has a virtual monopoly on sparkling wine. To entice his fellow Indians to drink his fizz, he has launched a new tank-fermented variety, Joie, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and liberal doses of Thompson Seedless. His Chateau Indage domestic wines include a port-style fortified ruby; a white, traditionally drunk at Indian weddings; a Riviera Pinot Noir; a premium-oaked Chantilli Cabernet and a premium-oaked Chantilli Chardonnay; and a brandy made in his own pot-still, imported from Cognac.

These sub-continental Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays are thin, limp examples and cannot compete with wines from the rest of the world - this much Chougule knows. But, keen to earn foreign exchange to import Californian and Australian wines, he's launched an attack on Indian restaurants abroad. With 10,600 in Britain and 400 in Paris, he feels there is plenty of scope for his new Soma and Anarkali range.

Today, you might well encounter Vickrand, Chougule's youngest son, and a marketing team from Bombay on "promotion evenings" in London's hottest curry houses, recruiting customers' opinions. "Most people are not concerned with the type of wine they buy in Indian restaurants," believes Chougule. This is probably a relief, as his two best-sellers, Soma White (Ugni Blanc/Arkavati) and Anarkali (oaked Cabernet Sauvignon/Bangalore Purple), are still well below par in terms of quality, compared to competition from better-established vineyards.

Chougule is aware that his wines are bought for their novelty value. But Vickrand says optimistically: "We hope to sell our table wines into UK supermarkets within the next two years." And Chougule is no fool - he has realised that there may be more potential for producing finer quality in boutique wineries on cooler, higher altitude hill station terraces, 5,000 metres above sea-level. When I left him, he was stepping on to a plane bound for Simla in search of new horizons for his modern Indian wine culture.

For stockists, contact USW Ltd on 0181 953 1919