It’s not often your host has passed up dinner with Mick Jagger and the Maharaja of Jodhpur to take you to his country house for the weekend. But that’s what Rajeev Samant, the pioneer of India’s wine craze, lets slip as we begin the long drive north from Mumbai to his Sula vineyard.
Samant has come a long way since he drove a battered old Fiat up this road in the early 1990s to become a farmer on a patch of his father’s land — a gigantic risk for a young man who’d just chucked in a lucrative job in California’s Silicon Valley. ‘Every day I thank my lucky stars,’ he says. ‘I mean, I live this rock-star lifestyle.’ With his shaved scalp, goatee and ear-ring, Samant has used his playboy image to market Sula wines since they were launched in 1999. Château Indage in nearby Pune and Grover Vineyards in Bangalore began producing a decade earlier, but it was Sula’s efforts to make wine the drink of India’s aspirational classes that sparked today’s boom.
Some of the world’s biggest drinks companies, including Diageo and Pernod Ricard, are rushing to set up wineries to capture a market that is growing at 30 per cent a year. Bollywood’s leading ladies can now be seen clutching glasses of wine on and off screen. For the new professional classes of Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi, fresh from business trips to Europe and the US, wine is a major status symbol. And Samant’s enterprise grows apace. ‘We’re planting 500 acres a year,’ he says. ‘There are very few wineries in the world that are planting that kind of number.’
The vineyard amid the Nashik hills is breathtaking. The vines, hoisted high above the ground to keep them cool in the baking summer, stretch down towards shimmering Lake Gangapur. If it wasn’t for a tiny Hindu temple flying an orange flag on a nearby hillside, you would scarcely believe this is India. Sula will produce 1.8 million bottles of wine this year and 2.4 million in 2008. When a newly acquired second winery is up and running, capacity will double again.
Could Indian wines follow Chilean and Australian wines on to Britain’s supermarket shelves? Sula already exports almost 10 per cent of its production, with Japan and, perplexingly, Finland, being the biggest markets. Smaller quantities go to Britain and France — primarily to upmarket restaurants such as St Tropez’s Hotel Byblos.
The obvious potential has generated international interest. In the haven of Sula’s tasting room, Samant is ambushed by an Italian consultant pushing a deal with one of Verona’s wine producers. ‘There’s so many people wanting to come and take a piece of me,’ Samant says with a long-suffering smile. He already has an agreement with Bosco of Italy to make a cheap sparkling wine costing just 200 rupees (£2.45), and a joint venture with Hugh Ryman, an iconoclastic British-born winemaker who inspired the Ridley Scott film A Good Year; the two have jointly created Maison Pierre, a French wine designed for the Indian palette.
Land is available for India to become a major producer. The state of Maharashtra alone has 150,000 acres planted with table grapes — many destined for the shelves at Tesco — compared to just 5,000 planted with wine grapes. This is the opposite of the norm elsewhere in the world, where more than 90 per cent of grapes are used for wine. The region around Bangalore is already well established, and Sula and others are researching the suitability of states such as the Punjab and Himachal Pradesh.
But for Samant, exports are not a priority: selling to the Indian market is much more profitable. Even after the WTO succeeded in bringing down tariffs on wine from 260 per cent to 150 per cent, India’s winemakers are heavily protected. And their products are not cheap. Sula’s mass-market wine, a Chenin Blanc, sells for 350 rupees a bottle (£4.30); its premium Dindori Reserve Shiraz sells in Mumbai for 675 rupees (£8.25).
This is partly because wine is still marketed at the upper echelons of Indian society.
‘I know all the maharajas through my wines,’ Samant says. ‘They love wine and they love champagne.’ But costs are also high. Bottles and screw-tops need to be imported. Expensive irrigation systems are needed. Unlike established winemakers, Indian producers face the cost of planting new rootstock. Their only advantage is cheap labour — but wine is not a labour-intensive industry. As the industry scales up, though, costs will start to fall and the hope is that by the time the WTO forces India to bring tariffs into line with the rest of the world — inevitable by 2010 — Indian producers will be ready for an influx of cheap New World wines.
Samant puts it starkly. ‘India has 1.1 billion people becoming every day a little bit richer, and everybody in the city wants to drink wine. It’s not rocket science. You’ve just got to keep pumping out as much as you can, so that by the time the tariffs come down, you’ll have the market share and scale to compete.’
To his advantage is the fact that Indian wines are often impressively drinkable considering the unique conditions Indian winemakers face. Unlike every other major wine region, India’s grapes are grown in the winter, after a heavy prune to induce dormancy over the hot summer and monsoon months. It is this technique, combined with the cooler climate of the Nashik plateau 2,000 feet above sea level, that makes winemaking possible.
Sula’s Chenin Blanc is tailored to India’s sweet tooth, but its Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Zinfandel and méthode champenoise are well matched to global tastes. Samant says his best decision was the one he took with his Californian wine consultant Kerry Damsker to plant Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc. Running his hands over a vine, just budding with the season’s first grapes, he says, ‘These are the first Sauvignon grapes planted in India. I think Sula could end up being a pretty historic place.’
But Samant knows India’s winemakers still have a way to go before they have an understanding of the soil and local climate to rival old-world winemakers. ‘Of course, in France and Italy they’ve been building that knowledge for hundreds of years. We’re trying to compress it into a very short space of time. We’ve got to go slow: we’re making wine, not widgets.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 8, 2007