Filling in the blancs: Indian wine is young, but maturing nicely

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Is this the new Napa Valley? Harriet O'Brien takes a trip to the vineyards of Nashik, near Mumbai, and discovers some fresh flavours to savour

Grapefruit with a twist of lime – not bad. I took another sip of Sula Sauvignon Blanc and was almost certain of a discreet hint of mango too.

I was having dinner at Ziya, the sleek Indian-meets-contemporary-European restaurant at the Oberoi's flagship hotel in Mumbai. The wine list here offers everything from Rhône Valley rosé to Stellenbosch merlot. Indian wines, too: it was a local Maharashtrian number that I was sampling.

I had first tasted Indian wine some five years previously on a river cruise in Assam. One rainy afternoon, a wine-tasting session was organised onboard our vessel and we sampled six Indian whites. It was not a very serious exercise. Once we'd got past the sulphurous bouquet, spitting was the spontaneous reaction.

Yet on a return trip to India two years later I happened to meet a New Zealand winemaker in Delhi. He was zealous about Indian wines. Back in the late 1970s the world laughed at New Zealand's wine efforts, he said. And he reckoned Indian viticulture was at just such a stage in its evolution. There was, he assured me, plenty of potential. Much of the challenge, he said, was in controlling over-fruiting and producing just one harvest.

This year's crop is just about to start coming in, and the results are mooted to be promising. But in any event, Indian wine has come a long way from the implausible product I sampled five years ago. Indeed, I had ample scope to enjoy it recently while travelling in Maharashtra, in the south of the country. In particular I had been hearing how the area around the town of Nashik (or Nasik), north-east of Mumbai, is becoming the Napa Valley of India – which sounded intriguingly surreal.

My first stop was the Oberoi Mumbai, partly because I had heard so much about the recent refurbishment of the hotel – it is now something of a symbol of the chic, modern face of India, its courtyard lobby a stylish black-and-white space dotted with artworks. More pragmatically, I was also visiting in order to meet one of the Oberoi's sommeliers and get a few pointers about Indian wine.

A Canadian graduate of oenology, Lindsay Groves joined the Oberoi group in 2009. The wine culture of India is expanding rapidly, she told me, and it reflects the country's huge changes in lifestyle, particularly for women. Wine drinking is still, of course, very new to India and often the consumers don't quite know what to expect in terms of taste and quality, but they are learning fast.

Her enthusiasm for India's wine was tempered with realism. This is the new frontier of wine production, she remarked, and while some boutique vineyards around Nashik are very promising, others produce quantities of a substance that can barely be called wine. She urged me to go and see for myself, particularly because a recognisable wine tourist industry is starting to take shape.

For all the acceleration of India's economic growth, hiring a car with a driver is still an affordable and easily arranged luxury in Mumbai. I simply wandered into a travel agent off bustling Colaba Causeway and arranged an early departure the next morning for a two-day trip to the Nashik area.

It takes just under four hours to drive the 115 miles from Mumbai to Nashik, which is set on the Godavari river at the edge of the Western Ghats range of hills. It's a curiously mixed bag type of place: a booming centre of heavy industry surrounded by picturesque farmland dotted with sacred sites. Hindus consider this one of the holiest regions of India.

Every 12 years the Kumbh Mela, reputedly the largest religious gathering in the world, takes place here (the next such event at Nashik is in August 2015). The Trimbakeshwar temple, 17 miles west of the town, is a magnet for pilgrims. Along the highway we passed streams of hard-core devotees clutching orange flags and walking all the way from Mumbai through sapping heat.

Approaching the outskirts of Nashik we skirted steelworks and turned down a dirt track. We were abruptly in a rural world of bullock carts, spindly brindled cows and fields of tomatoes and vines, with the Western Ghats, pummelled into weird shapes by the weather, forming a dramatic backdrop. I had given the driver the addresses of a few vineyards mentioned in India's Sommelier magazine and also by the Oberoi staff.

Our first port of call was Zampa, tucked away in a spectacularly lush series of glades now named Vallée de Vin (sic). I was shown around the 33-acre property by Nivrutti Dhawale, vineyard manager and viticulturist.

As we walked past rows of Syrah and Grenache, he explained that back in the 1920s the Nashik area became a major centre for growing grapes to eat. It was only in the late 1990s that wine vines were introduced and, less than 15 years later, there are now more than 45 vineyards in the region. Zampa has been producing wine for just three years and already there are plans to expand the business. Mr Dhawale took me to the top of a hill above the vines: this, he said, was where they were intending to build a small resort of 12 villas and a restaurant. We moved on to the winery where we tasted a series of pleasantly spicy reds and some slightly chalky whites. Mr Dhawale spoke with passion about the techniques of growing and, crucially, pruning vines in a monsoonal climate and he enthused about his ambition to create really high quality wines.

I had intended our next stop to be an equally go-ahead boutique vineyard. But road signs in the area are sporadic and Mercury Winery eluded us. Ali, the driver, kept asking passing locals for directions to "the wine factory", discrimination between producers evidently playing no part in his estimation of this new industry, and we wound up at random at the Renaissance winery. The Aher family, proprietors and wine makers, were charming and proudly explained that they produce about 700,000 litres annually, selling to ready markets across India. They were delighted to take me on a tour and show me their latest product, a canned drink called "Rio" – which turned out to be carbonated wine. "Just like champagne," I was told. I managed a couple of sips and tasted a small selection of murky whites before extracting myself politely.

After an overnight stop in Nashik, my first destination the next morning was Trimbakeshwar temple set by the Godavari river and backed by fantastically shaped hills. Non Hindus may not enter the large basalt shrine, but for a foreigner the joy of coming here is in soaking up the vibrant atmosphere. Pilgrims thronged the surrounding area which was awash with stalls selling sugar cane, toys, lucky charms, and flowers. Cows wandered through the crowds, munching on offerings of grass and marigolds that were thrown their way. The atmosphere was joyous.

Our final stopping point was Sula winery about 20 minutes' drive from the temple. We followed a couple of cars, filled to the brim with families, up a driveway through neat rows of vines, and arrived in California. Or so I might have been half-forgiven for thinking.

Here, amid burgeoning grapes, was an attractive and well signposted complex with two stylishly informal restaurants (one Mediterranean, one Indian), an amphitheatre, and a visitor centre with shop, laid-back café-cum-tasting area, and gallery showing the story of wine in the area. I checked in at the front desk for one of their guided tours – which depart hourly.

Devised as a Napa Valley-style vineyard, Sula is the best known of India's wineries, and the most successful in terms of brand recognition – with a striking logo of a smiling, moustachioed sun. The winery is the creation of Rajeev Samant, an Indian economist whose working life started with a stint in Silicon Valley, California. In the mid-Nineties he returned to his family's 30-acre estate near Nashik, which he subsequently turned into a Californian-inspired destination winery. Over the last 13 or so years the operation has grown enormously and today Sula manages 1,500 acres and produces a range of very pleasing wines, from chardonnay to rosé and shiraz.

Tour over, I wandered the shop, thronged with enthusiastic day-trippers buying Sula souvenirs – chocolates, keyrings, T-shirts and jute bags – as well as wine. Then I joined the happy groups of wine tasters and sat out on the generous balcony of the adjoining café. A glass of chenin blanc in hand, I gazed over a panorama of vines; the new flavour of India laid out before me.

Travel Essentials

How to get there

Harriet O'Brien travelled to Mumbai with Western & Oriental (020-7666 1234; wandotravel.com). The city features in a number of its itineraries including the 12-night "Rajasthan in Style" tour visiting Delhi, Rajasthan and Mumbai, and costing from £3,685 per person. The price covers return flights from Heathrow, accommodation, all meals, private driver and private guided sightseeing. The company can also tailor-make tours to include trips to Nashik from Mumbai.

Mumbai is served direct from Heathrow by Air India (020-8560 9996; airindia.com); British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com); Jet Airways (020-8970 1525; jetairways.com); Kingfisher (0800 047 0810; flykingfisher.com); and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com).

Staying there

Harriet O'Brien stayed at the Oberoi Mumbai (00 91 22 6632 5757; oberoihotels.com; doubles from R13,500/£184). She travelled from Mumbai to Nashik with Traveline Holidays, off Colaba Causeway (00 91 22 2282 9613). Car hire with driver, and one night at a clean if slightly basic hotel in Nashik cost R8,500 (£114) for the two-day trip.

Vineyard visits

Zampa Vineyards, Vallée de Vin, Gat 967 at Post Sanjegaon, Nashik, Maharashtra (00 91 25 5320 4379; vallee-de-vin.com).

Renaissance Restaurant and Wine Lounge, Gat 2317 Mumbai-Agra Road, Ozar, Nashik, Maharashtra (00 91 92 2512 4624; renaissancewineryindia. net).

Sula Vineyards, Gat 36/2, Govardhan, Off Gangapur-Savargaon Road, Nashik, Maharashtra (00 91 25 3223 1663; sulawines.com).

Emerging wine producers

Sophie Lam

Thailand

Chiang Mai hosted the 2011 International Symposium on Tropical Wines, reflecting the growth in Thailand's wine industry. There are three wine producing regions, the most distinguished wines coming from the north. Here, the Chateau de Loei is regarded as a pioneer and offered its first bottles to the market in 1995 (chateaudeloei.com).

Granmonte Family Vineyard, in the Asoke Valley, two hours north-east of Bangkok, has won awards for its syrah and chenin wines, and also offers a guesthouse for visitors keen to explore the vineyard in depth (granmonteguesthouse.com).

Winery tours are now emerging, with more unusual offerings including elephant-back exploration of the Hua Hin Hills Vineyard (huahinhillsvineyard.com).

Turkey

Wines from Turkey languished at the bottom of the pile for decades but they have undergone a transformation. The existence of a 200 per cent domestic tax on wine has encouraged exports. The quality has also been aided by expert consultants from France and the US

The three main production areas are: the Aegean, centred on Izmir; Central and Eastern Anatolia; and the Euphrates valley, one of the world's oldest wine areas.

As well as international varieties, such as cabernet and chardonnay, indigenous varieties are grown such as the white sultaniye and narince grapes and red bogazkere and okuzgozu. Winery tours are offered by the TransBalkan Travel Service (transbalkan.net).

China

China is increasing its wine production in response to a growing domestic demand – it is Bordeaux's biggest export client. At a blind tasting of cabernet sauvignon from China's Grace Vineyard last month, wine from China's remote Ningxia region beat Bordeaux wines on a panel of five French and five Chinese wine experts. Moët Hennessy is also planning to set up a winery and cultivate vines in Ningxia to produce sparkling wine. China Wine Tours runs trips that take in China's historic sites as well as several of its wineries (chinawinetours.com).

News
people
Sport
Yaya Sanogo celebrates scoring the opening goal with Arsenal's English midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
champions leagueLive: All the latest from the Emirates and Bulgaria, where Liverpool face Ludogorets
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Manager - Global Leisure Business

    £55000 - £65000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in their fiel...

    Investigo: Senior Finance Analyst - Global Leisure Business

    £45000 - £52000 per annum + bonus+bens : Investigo: My client, a global leader...

    Investigo: Financial reporting Accountant

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: One of the fastest growing g...

    Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luton – £25k

    25,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: CRM Executive – Global Travel Brand – Luto...

    Day In a Page

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning