Before becoming a vintner, Rajeev Samant struggled for more than three years to get a license to put down vines. Finally, he persuaded alcohol-suspicious authorities that the ability to grow vinifera in the region was "a gift from the gods." A novice grower, he had no idea what to plant and where, and once he decided on Sauvignon Blanc, he had no idea if his grapes would ripen—no idea if they would even bear fruit.
Where he lives is hot—regularly over 100° F three months a year—so to say his cellar is temperature-controlled would be an understatement. Even pricing his product was problematic: When he started out in 1996, there was a $3 excise tax on every bottle, and none could legally be priced at more than four times that amount, the equivalent of $12. The winemaker overcame all that, but like clockwork, Mother Nature drops a new bomb on his vines every year. "The biggest challenge," said Samant, whose Sula Vineyards now dominates 65 percent of India's wine market, "is managing the monsoon."
From June until September, it rains and rains and rains in India—40 inches in three months in the Nashik district, where Sula is located. Those months unfortunately happen to coincide with the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere, of which, seventh-grade geography-class enthusiasts will recall, India is a member. The solution? If your growing season can't grow, get a new growing season. Prune the vines. Don't let a single bud out until September, which is known as "harvesttime" in the rest of the hemisphere.
But Nashik is at a latitude that puts it in the company of Saudi Arabia and Belize. There is no period of winter dormancy, because it never gets cold. So Sula and the region's 35 other wineries follow a warm-climate Southern Hemisphere growing season, picking in February and March.
Shortly after he began releasing wine, in 2000, Samant recalled visiting a high-end restaurant in Mumbai. The wine list concentrated entirely on local selections: an "Indian red wine" and an "Indian white wine." Today the place pours 80 bottles from around the world. The Indian wine market is growing 20 percent each year. Right now, consumption is limited to the elite 1 percent, but Samant estimates that in 10 years, it will have expanded to 5 percent. Five percent of India's 2022 population is about 67.5 million wine drinkers, which is more than the entire population of France, including the children.
What happened? The rise of Indian wine culture and that of Sula are intertwined, and Samant has been at the forefront of both. His story began when his father couldn't get rid of a patch of property; "nobody wants this land," the realtor told him. Samant had returned to town in 1993, following a stint at Oracle in California (he was a Stanford man before that). He convinced his father to keep the plot. He had an idea for it: Nashik grew plenty of grapes, all for the table. "I'm seeing all these grapes and saying, Why is nobody making wine here?" he explained at a recent lunch in New York. At 2,000 feet above sea level, Nashik has a more forgiving climate than much of India; cooler nights allow grapes time to ripen with all their elements in balance.
Samant made missteps, of course; this was, after all, the third winery in India (again, there are now 35 in Nashik alone). The Sauvignon Blanc didn't take very well to its original turf, and the Shiraz (so called because it was the early 2000s, heady days of Australian wine) did not like sitting in the rain on flat ground. It now lives on rocky hillsides, which obviously drain better. But Samant began to see his wines in stores—on display right behind the windowpane, basking in the sun!
Fast-forward a dozen years: Sula has a Zinfandel, a Riesling, a sparkling Chenin Blanc made in the méthode traditionelle, an annual 500,000-case production sourced from 1,500 acres, two restaurants, an outdoor theater and a resort hotel with a pool. It employs 350 locals full-time in what used to be a village economy.
"Fifteen years behind China" is where Samant puts the current development of the Indian wine market. Sula now releases two wines over the 1,000 rupee threshold ($18), a first for the country's producers. (Samant helped work to eliminate the excise tax rule.) You can now get a license to open a wine bar in two weeks. Tariffs on EU wine imports are being bargained down, which will open the door for a blue-chip trade. Soon, the country will have its first official appellation.
Of course, the reasons for this growth in the Indian wine world are manifold, but to Samant, a big one sticks out: women. In the older generation, a lady does not take alcohol. Even among the younger set, a whiskey-drinkin' woman is not, perhaps, one to meet the parents. But now there's a fine-wine culture, where a glass of Riesling is hardly the coarse hooch of ne'er-do-wells. As India's hip wine culture grows, more and more drinkers are finding sophistication, not shame, in uncorking a bottle.
You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.
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