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Jancis plays the Indian card. Indians: Bugger off


Jancis took a slam at Indian wine-drinking habits in her latest column in the Financial Times, where she arches an acerbic eyebrow over “the Indian social tradition of drinking long and hard – whether wine, spirits or beer, or all three – before rather than with food. Indeed parties tend to be measured a success by how late the food is served, a long way from the measured progress of a traditional French dinner with wine.”

Meow! Jancis decries also the Indian obsession with “status” and “hundred-point wines.” She suggests a certain vulgarity when “Recipients of hospitality will routinely check the scores and price of the wines they have been served.” What, do they Google the wines on their iPhones at dinner parties?

All this did not sit well with a writer from the Indian Wine Academy, who accused Jancis of being “slightly behind time” and defended his nation in strong terms. “India may be a late arrival in the near future but Jancis ought not have any doubt that India will emerge as a wine nation, both in terms of wine production, consumption and exports in the decades to come,” he writes, concluding with a Dylanesque “But the times are a changin’!”

That Indians do indeed drink early and eat late is conceded by Indian writers themselves. “While in the West people wash their food down with wine, in India we tend to have wine as an aperitif — before the food. The reason is simple: ours is largely a…culture where most drinking is done before dinner.” That’s from Alok Chandra, writing last week in Business Standard.

We see in India echoes of our own experience here in the States in the decades following Prohibition. It takes a long time for a wealthy nation to find its wine-drinking feet. Missteps are to be expected, along with a certain degree of snobbism that is, after all, only a sign of insecurity. One iconic image of the Twenties and (with Prohibition inbetween) of the 1940s-1950s is the cocktail party, in which people got smashed before dinner (you need only to watch “Mad Men” to appreciate this). So India’s before-dinner sloshiness isn’t so different from America’s, not that long ago.

But India is evolving more quickly than America did — not surprisingly, given the speed with which everything happens nowadays. Earlier this month, the Indian wine industry held a sort of summit “to discuss the potential and challenges of the Indian wine industry.” It concluded optimistically that the Indian wine industry could “become a global player and world leader by 2020,” both in terms of production and in terms of making wine “a part of [Indians’] living culture”. In order to accomplish that, the leaders emphasized, India needs to do the same thing that America did, starting in the 1960s: “segregating” wine “from hard liquor” so that the average Indian consumer understands it in a different category — one you might call Europeanized.

Currently the quality of Indian wine does not appear to be high, given the heat and humidity. Much of what is produced — mainly in the cooler Northern region of Punjab and at higher elevations in the south — is sweet. The country’s largest wineries are Indage, Sula and Grover; together, they account for 90 percent of market share. In addition to indigenous varieties that have evolved to withstand the climate, the leading varieties are Sultana, Black Muscat, Zinfandel, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Leading American wine producers are aware of the promise of the Indian market. Just yesterday, the online site Earth Times reported that “Constellation Brands, Inc., Foster’s Group Ltd. and E. & J. Gallo Winery” are “Leading players in Indian wine market,” as well they might be. Anybody who isn’t looking into the Indian market is stupid.

I have Indian friends here in Oakland who are into wine, but Lord help me if they read this, I think they do tend to look at price before deciding whether or not they like it. I hope it’s just a phase that a young, insecure people go through, hopefully not for long.

  1. Steve,
    I am a complete neophyte in Indian viticulture, but I can tell you that, if their goal is quality, they won’t go very far in the Punjab. It is still in the monsoon climate zone (heavy summer rains), and has scorching late-spring/summer heat (highs above 105 and lows in the 80’s). It is definitely unsuitable for winegrowing. I believe, though, that most wineries are in the south (Nashik region, in Maharashtra, near Mumbai, and Nandi Hills, near Bangalore), and the best wine grapes are grown in the winter.
    On the other hand, Srinagar, in the Kashmir Valley, is a very interesting macro-region for grape-growing, with great potential for French varieties. I am not sure about the sovereign/political aspects, for this region has a vast majority of muslins; but the geographical attributes are fantastic.
    The same physical potential (this time for Pinot Noir and white grapes) applies for the Indus/Shigar and Hunza Valleys (Karakoram Range), in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, at altitudes ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 feet. In this specific case, however, I understand investors will not be happy to share the company of talibans.

  2. Steve, I’m sorry. I meant to write that the Srinagar region has “a vast majority of Muslims”.

  3. Hi Steve,

    Couple of points you have not quite got right on the Indian wine industry.

    Firstly there are hardly any wineries making wine out of Sultana and Black Muscat anymore. Some local table grape varieties are used such as Thompson seedless and Bangalore Purple, but thats more at the bottom end of the market.

    Secondly there was a someone who tried to grow wine grapes in Punjab some time back and failed at it. The majority of the wineries have always been concentrated in the area around Nasik and Pune in Maharashtra (on the west coast) and then near Bangalore in Karnataka (south region). Nasik, mainly because of a history of growing table grapes which are also exported to the EU and UK.

    In terms of quality, yes we do have a long way to go. But I believe we are on the right path. One of our wines, a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 just got Commended at the International Wine Challenge at the London Wine Fair this week. So it shows that the potential to make quality wine exists.

    Ravi Gurnani

  4. Hi Ravi, thanks. I got my information from the Indian Wine Academy, from the publication Business Standard, from Sommelier India and other sources. And from what I can tell, the “Commended” category at the International Wine Challenge is quite low, with Gold, Silver and Bronze above it.

  5. As someone who has consulted for Indian wine businesses in India, I have to take issue with this article.

    Ravi is quite right to point out that your research was pretty poorly done. Having read a few articles from local journals without actually verifying the context or understanding the subject is a mark of poor journalism. I don’t understand how you could have been mistaken in geography, grapes grown AND vastly oversimplified the consumer market.

    Your sources, Subhash Arora (Indian Wine Academy) and Reva Singh (Sommelier India) are both very knowledgeable commentators, and either one would have been able to improve this article if you had just fact checked a little.

  6. Aside from cultural traditions, it’s pretty hard to pair wine with Indian food. I’d drink the wine first, then have beer with the meal, myself!

  7. Steve/Ravi, I understand Sultana and Thompsons are the same variety. Main purpose is for table grapes or raisins, not wine.

  8. Always interesting around here…


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