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.
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).
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.
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