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India develops a taste for wine

When you walk into an Indian restaraunt and order chicken Makni Tikka, you probably aren’t thinking about which Indian wine goes with it. A small group of Indian vintners hopes to change that.
/ Source: CNBC

When you walk into an Indian restaraunt and order chicken Makni Tikka, you probably aren’t thinking about which Indian wine goes best with the dish. But that may soon change.

WINE SALES are up in the country, where 60 million cases of spirits and 100 million cases of beer were consumed last year and international wine connoisseurs are starting to take note.

“It is a completely alien product in the sense that because it is expensive, because it was not available, nobody knew really much about wine,” says Alok Chandra, co-founder and president of the Bangalore Wine Club.

Chandra is doing his best to change that. But he acknowledges, “It’s only in the last 10 years that people have got to know a little bit.”

Indians have always preferred beer and spirits to fruit of the vine. Overall wine consumption among India’s one billion people is a paltry .006 bottles per capita. Worldwide, that number is five bottles.

But that hasn’t deterred Kanwal Grover. After falling in love with wine as a young man in France, he started toiling in the fields nearly three decades ago in hopes of creating the perfect crop.

“Very easy to make a million out of the wine business. You only have to start with a billion,” jests Grover, one of the country’s pioneering vintners. “You have to watch out for the economics of it.”

Two things have held the industry back in India. First, the government doesn’t consider grapes to be a legitimate farm crop. And Grover says, “The rules are, if you are non-agriculturalist you cannot buy land.”

He fought for years with the government and finally was able to lease a mere 100 acres. To expand, he’ll clearly need more land.

The other issue is the climate. Indian summers often reach 120 degrees — too hot for most grapes. “Everyone in France said to me, ‘Wine making is not difficult, it’s a good grape that is difficult,’” Grover says.

But after experimenting with 33 varieties of grapes for a decade, Grover finally found one that could withstand the heat. Today, his winery is one of the three majors in India.

“I am willing to put up our La Reserve, as well as our red wine and the white and the rosé,” he says. “I am willing to put it up under competition with anyone you’d like to give me.”

Adds Abhay Kewadkar, who runs the Grover family’s vineyard: “We have truly developed a benchmark for Indian wines, not only in the Indian market, but in [the] international market as well.”

Grover received a final confirmation of success when his wine was accepted 8,000 miles away at New York City’s top-rated Indian restaurant, Tabla.

“When they brought the samples to us we tasted them and they kind of fit in with our wine list,” says Tabla’s chef, Floyd Cardoz. “They are very popular ... Most people are very excited: ‘Hey, a wine from India!’”

Cardoz, who grew up in Bombay, sells 15 glasses of Grover a day and would like to add more selections. “Right now we just have one. It’s a Cabernet. But if they have any others like a Pinot or Shiraz, something else we can put on our list, I’d be very excited.”

This is an industry still in its infancy. While Grover Vineyards is one of the largest wine makers in India, it still only produces about half a million bottles per year. But with wine consumption growing, Grover is poised to reap some very tasty profits.

“In five years you will have consumption of a million to a million-and-a-half cases, which is four times what we have now,” Chandra says.

Though India’s three main wineries put out approximately two million bottles, Grover Vineyards hopes to increase their numbers to a million bottles within two to three years. As for imports, India brings in approximately 800,000 bottles a year, but they are very expensive — from $20 to $50 on average.