India's new status symbol: a nation hits the bottle

As India's economy grows, the middle class is hunting for the latest waysto flaunt its affluence. Andrew Buncombe reports from Delhi on the growing popularity of the grape in a nation more famous for its tea

By the flickering light of the restaurant's candles, suspicious particles seemed to be floating in the wine the waiter had just poured. It was hardly an auspicious start to the evening.

But in an instant came the explanation. There was nothing wrong with the wine; these were pure flakes of 24-carat gold added to the Californian chardonnay by the manufacturer simply for additional "wow factor". And it worked. The group of well-dressed men and women laughed and smiled and lifted their glasses towards the light, better to see the wine sparkle.

In India, wine is being drunk as never before. This year, as for the past half-dozen years, sales are expected to increase by at least 35 per cent and perhaps even more. Partly fuelled by India's newly buoyant consumerism and partly by the increasing numbers of people travelling abroad for business or holidays, wine has rapidly become the latest symbol of affluence and supposed sophistication for the country's newly wealthy middle-classes. Like carrying the right handbag or driving an elegant car, nothing says "I've arrived" better than to be seen swirling a glass of wine.

Of course, there are plenty of people who actually enjoy the stuff. Across the country, wine clubs are being set up, tastings are being organised by some of the world's leading producers and India's own wine industry is starting to make a handful of vintages that can compete with international competition. In the past decade, the number of Indian vineyards has grown from no more than half a dozen to about 50, concentrated mainly in the Nashik region of Maharastra, 120 miles from Mumbai.

"The wine market is booming," said Kapil Grover, owner of Grover Vineyards, one India's oldest and most respected producers, whose French-imported vines grow at elevation at Nandi Hills near Bangalore in southern India. "I'm 52 and think we're going to see 30 to 35 per cent growth for the rest of my lifetime."

In India, the history of wine can be traced to the culture's oldest religious writings. The Yarjuveda – one of the four Indian Vedas or "knowledges" written in Sanskrit and believed to date from several centuries BC – tells how the Hindu gods Indra and Varuna drank a mixture of wine and herbs known as Somrasa. One line of the Yarjuveda reads: "Oh plants, it was Indra and Varuna who first drank the Somrasa. Having gratified him, now I partake of the oblational food with Somrasa." Yet despite the support of the gods, those promoting the spread of a genuine wine culture in India today face many hurdles. In a country where an estimated 77 per cent of India's population of 1.15 billion people survive on perhaps as little as 25p a day and where the gap between the rich and poor is increasing, the market for wine operates at the top of the economic pyramid.

High taxes mean the cheapest bottle of ordinary or indifferent Indian wine costs 400 rupees (£5). An imported bottle is considerably more. A poor labourer wishing for an instant anaesthetic to the rigours of his daily life can buy a small bottle of industrially made rum or whisky for a handful of coins. And he doesn't have to worry about flakes of gold.

That well-heeled group enjoying the so-called "gold wine" on a recent evening at a peaceful restaurant in the south of Delhi were typical of the people behind the surge in the growth of wine sales and for whom importers are furiously stepping up efforts to market their products. Middle-aged professionals at the higher levels of their jobs, many had first tasted wine when travelling abroad. Returning to India they had joined the Delhi Wine Circle to learn more about this discovery.

"We like to travel," said Shravani Dang, head of corporate communications for a leading Indian industrial conglomerate and a member of the circle for the past three years. "We were in Rome and we learnt a bit about wine. It's good to learn things such as pairing food and wines," "We had drunk wine before ... a few years ago we had a case of South American wine and we had a cheese and wine party. Nobody knew anything about it. People would ask, 'When are you bringing out the real drinks?'"

Another member, a woman who described herself as "mid-level management professional" in her 30s but declined to give her name, said she had been in the club for two years. She enjoyed trying the different wines and meeting people who furnished interesting conversation. "I joined because it seemed like the club had interesting events," she said.

Anil and Reena Khana, said they had joined the club after their children sent them to France to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. They had found themselves touring the vineyards of Bordeaux and were instantly hooked. When they returned to India they signed up. "We wanted to learn more about wine and different wines. We just started to learn," said Mr Khana, a friendly business manager for a large Indian group. "It's really like a hobby."

The evening's dinner and tasting had started with the gold wines from the 100 Acres label in the Napa Valley, a chardonnay and viognier blend and a rosé, and rapidly progressed to several wines from the Australian producer Buller. There were two different chardonnays, a shiraz, a merlot and finally a 2005 cabernet merlot blend.

Members munched their way through mozzarella salad, a vegetable risotto, a series of main courses which included the rare delight – in Hindu-majority India – of seared beef tenderloin, and finished off with an apple tart. The evening concluded with a mulled red wine that did not appear to be the toast of the night.

Even among the country's wealthy set, wine still encounters opposition from those who prefer India's drink of choice - Scotch whisky. Tusha Gupta, an interior designer, said it was taking time to break down prejudice against wine. "You go to a party and people still don't like to have wine," she said. "People believe it's women who will have a glass. They'll have a cocktail or a whisky."

Indeed, despite the headline figure of 35 per cent year on year growth, India's wine consumption remains tiny. The country's sales of about 1.2 million cases of wine equates to just a teaspoon per person. At the other end of the scale, the thirsty French drink 55 litres per person every year. But a more telling comparison may be with China, so often listed with India as a superpower of the future. There the annual per capita consumption of wine is a glass. In terms of sales, China may also be ahead of its rival and neighbour.

Robert Joseph, the British wine writer and founder of the International Wine Challenge, said to be the world's biggest competition, said India was not progressing as quickly as some people might like to think. He said: "I've been running wine competitions in the emerging markets – Singapore, China, Japan, Thailand, Russia, Vietnam, etc – since 1997. Over that time, I've been watching India with great interest, and a certain degree of impatience. Compared to China, the development of a wine-drinking culture has been slow and India remains way behind in consumption."

Mr Joseph said improvements in India's wine production had also been made in the past five years, largely as a result of efforts by the Grover and Sula vineyards. But Indian wine producers retained a reverence to French labels when the new techniques they ought to be utilising were being developed by New World producers, in particular the Australians.

"Grover and Sula ... have produced world-class wines," he added. "But the best of these wineries' efforts are the exceptions to the rule. No other Indian winery is yet making wine that would stand comparison with successful efforts from Europe or the New World, though many Indian examples are far better than plenty of unsuccessful efforts from Europe."

But those in the trade in India are adamant that the tide is turning. Three years ago, publisher Reva Singh started a wine newsletter that was sent out to a small group of subscribers. Now Sommelier India, the country's only magazine devoted to wine, is a grown-up, bi-monthly glossy on sale at selected stores. Subscriptions for the magazine, which contains news and features on both Indian and imported wine, she says, are up by 25 per cent on last year. "Things are changing. People are becoming increasingly sophisticated with wine and want to learn more about it. When we started, people perceived drinking wine as being trendy. Many men preferred to drink Scotch. Now it has got to where people are asking questions."

Another optimist is Subhash Arora, the irrepressibly enthusiastic president of the Delhi Wine Circle and publisher of an online newsletter. He is responsible for the 20 or so wine dinners and tastings held by the club every year. Mr Arora is more than aware of the challenge he faces. He knows the sale of whisky and beer outstrip that of wine more than a hundred-fold; he knows too that wine is a product only a tiny fraction of Indians could ever hope to afford.

And yet he is convinced that the momentum is on his side. At the recent tasting in Delhi, as people began to wander away, Mr Arora lingered to explain more about his enthusiasm. Standing with a half-glass of ruby-coloured Australian wine, he said: "This is more than just my hobby, it's my passion."

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