India's wine lovers offer a tasty target to vineyards

In an elegant New Delhi club, Nivedita Singh indulges in a secret vice that she keeps hidden from her parents - she sips a glass of medium-bodied red wine.

"I dedicate my whole weekends to wine," Singh, 25, said. "It eases my stress and I enjoy having a classy and interesting hobby."

Singh says she is proud to be one of a growing number of young Indians who have embraced the etiquette and language of wine, and who are developing an increasingly subtle palate for a spicy Shiraz or a crisp Sancerre.

"Knowing what you drink and how you drink makes all the difference," she told AFP. "My parents, like many of their generation, do not distinguish between wine, beer and hard liquor. I hope they understand some day."

Singh lives in a large extended family where drinking alcohol is forbidden but she is among many affluent Indians who see wine-tasting as a badge of sophisticated glamour.

"As the medical experts tell us, 'wine is good for your health if consumed in prescribed quantities'," she said with a smile. "And that counts for Indian wines too."

Primarily sold in urban centres, the market for Indian wine is about 1.2 million cases a year and the country also imports 200,000 cases from Europe and a small percentage from Australia and the United States.

India, which is the world's largest whisky market, is a tempting target for both domestic and international wine sellers.

"We will easily grow by 30 percent this year. There will be new players in the market and that means healthy competition," said Kapil Grover, owner of Grover Wines, which cultivates 165 hectares (410 acres) of vineyards in the southwestern state of Karnataka.

Grover inherited the estate from his father and has experimented boldly to improve grape cultivation in the hot, humid climate.

Using foreign technology and experienced consultants, he produces wine that he says is now of international standard.

"India has embarked on wine adventure," he explained. "Wine-tasting sessions and wine clubs are spreading through the cities. I attend them often and I hear about 15 new wine companies will be set in India by next year."

Last year, two Italian winemakers became the first foreign producers to invest directly in India, seeking to tap into the emerging sector.

Riona Wines, based in the western state of Maharastra, the country's grape-growing centre, signed joint venture agreements with Italian vintners Moncaro and Enzo Mecella.

The two Italian companies have taken a 17-percent stake each in Riona in exchange for a total investment of 42.5 million dollars this year.

"This is the first time a foreign company is joining hands with an Indian winery to produce and sell wine," marketing director of Riona Wines Hansraj Ahuja told AFP.

They aim to produce and market six varieties of red and white wines for the Indian wine lover.

"There will be stiff competition but we want to make the finest quality of Indian wine" Ahuja said. "Market research points to many young people preferring wine to spirits."

Reva Singh, editor of Sommelier India wine magazine, said the key to success was long-term quality.

"Wine-drinking should not be taken as a fad," she said. "It is a pleasure to last a lifetime."

In the past five years, dozens of wine clubs have appeared in New Delhi, Mumbai and other cities for members to meet to taste and compare different wines.

And smart restaurants, clubs and hotels boast exhaustive collections of imported wine despite the hefty 110 per cent duty for importers - and tax at 20 to 35 percent on the drinker's bill.

"We are heading in the right direction. With a little support, the industry can accelerate growth," said Subash Chopra, head of the Indian Wine Academy, which trains hospitality staff how to handle wine.

He says one area of reform is a priority.

"Every state decides their own alcohol tax formula. It is a complex maze and makes business very tough," he said.

"India is learning a new culture and the government should encourage it."

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