As we turned right on a narrow street, just after the SBI building in Dindori on the left, the topography seemed familiar though the driver had to be in constant touch with the winery for direction. Nothing but agricultural crops seemed to be on either side of the road. It was only when we finally reached the winery and asked the hostess, Shruti Mannar who receives visitors to the winery, about a close-by round white structure that looked like an atomic reactor that I had the answer. Barely a kilometre yonder was the winery of Chateau d’Ori, a promising winery of the past that I visited 3-4 times during its early years but now facing extinction, awaiting a miracle.
Making of Indian Chandon
I have had an interesting bond with Chandon India as I was the first one to write a story about Moet Hennessy India starting a sparkling wine project when I met the Chandon team at SulaFest 2011. They had tied up with York Winery to crush and produce sparkling wine under their supervision. A few locals had already sensed it but it was not yet reported. I was fortunate to meet the Chandon team. Interestingly, no one knew what the label would be named. I had predicted in my inimitable style that it would be Chandon.
As reported in the 7thFebruary 2011 issue #434 of delWine, ‘The first harvest of grapes for the Indian avatar is already under crush. Grapes are being purchased and vinified at the Nashik-based York Winery under Moet’s own specification, till the company builds its own winery. The first lot of Chenin Blanc is already under vinification. Two variants- Brut and Rose Brut likely to be christened as Chandon, are expected to be released after August 2012, closer to Diwali.’ During the period at York, the supervision and creation of wine was done entirely by the Chandon’s team of winemakers and viticulturists.
‘Jim White and Tim Heath, Australian viticulturist and winemaker currently based in Marlborough, working for Cloudy Bay Vineyards owned by the Moet Hennessy group making quality champagne-styled bubbly, are already in Nashik along with Dr. Tony Jordan who has been the CEO of different Moet Hennessy group wineries like Cape Mantel and Cloudy Bay and is currently their consultant for the project. Bruno Yvon, Managing Director of Moet Hennessey India is also stationed in Nashik for the last few days.’
Launch of wine and winery
The Chandon sparklers were launched finally on October, 2013 in Mumbai, thanks to some administrative and bureaucratic speed breakers, and later on February 1, 2014 in Delhi. As reported then, the first crush took place in their new winery in 2014. But it was formally inaugurated on April 1, 2016 after one postponement because of the unfortunate terrorist attack in Paris. Unable to attend due to an earlier overseas commitment, I decided to visit the winery last week.
Sales and Targets
Chandon India is a 100% FDI project in which it has 20 acres land out of which 5 acres have been used in building the winery at a total estimated cost of €8 million. 4 acres around the winery have been planted with vines but they are basically horticultural and experimental vineyards although the grapes will be used in the winemaking when the vines are older and the time is right to use the fruit.
During last year-the second full year of operation, about 15,000 cases were sold in India. A small quantity was exported to Bhutan, Nepal and Srilanka which is an interesting market but pre-mature to anticipate how much can be sold there. To give a better perspective, Sula sells around 30,000 cases of premium sparkling wines after 15 years of experience and Grover Zampa produces around 5,000 cases annually (it hopes to double the number when the Bangalore-produced bubbly hits the market this year).
The internal target for this year is perhaps around 20,000 cases. Sales should reach its currently installed capacity of 50,000 cases within 5 years, though no one is willing to comment or speculate on the figures. A small additional investment in the Indian-made tanks should take the installed capacity to 100,000 (9-liter) cases. According to the estimates by delWine based on their superlative performance so far, the sale of 100,000 cases could be achieved in 8-10 years with a reasonable certainty and the winery seems to have been built keeping these or similar figures in mind.
Meeting the Winemaker
Chandon India is part of a clutch of wineries throughout the world producing sparkling wines as a part of the global strategy of Moet Chandon. The first Chandon Estate was created in Argentina in 1959 as Domaine Chandon Argentina as the first daughter company. This was followed by California (1973), Brazil (1973) Australia (1986) and China (2013) which was the same year as the Indian counterpart.
After a brief tour of the facility Rajesh Dixit, Estate Director of Chandon India introduced me to Juan Gustavo who has been in India already for a year and has been the winemaker under the international mobility plan of the parent company. He worked in Domaine Chandon Argentina from 1999-2001 and 2007 to 2015 when he was sent to India as the winemaker. His wife and her family also produce sparkling wine in Mendoza, so he has been a sparkling wine expert for many years.
Unlike India, Argentines seem to love drinking sparkling wines. To get a proper perspective, 17 million bottles of Chandon are estimated to be produced by Chandon Argentina, 85% of which are consumed within the country. This compares with 20-25 million bottles of Moet and Chandon champagne. Australia makes 5 million bottles. At its peak capacity, Chandon India may produce 1-1.2 million bottles-in 8-10 years and would be ahead of China which has the installed capacity of only 600,000 bottles a year.
Grapes of Chandon
Grapes are bought from the farmers some of whom have been contracted since 2011; totalling about 50 today. More are being added to the kitty to cope up with the increased production. ‘We don’t buy them from Dindori as we feel the quality of grapes for sparkling wines is better in the Eastern part of Nashik District- like Niphad area’, discloses Dixit.
Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are used for Chandon Brut while Rose is made primarily from Shiraz with a small quantity of Pinot Noir. The grapes are graded at the vineyards as A, B and C. At 60-70% Chenin is the main ingredient in the Brut blend with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay forming the rest of the blend, I was told.
Grapes are harvested at the average Brix level of 18-19 to keep the acidity high. White grapes are cold-soaked before putting in the tanks. Each lot of the same category is fermented together in the same tank. Fermentation is done in February and blending is carried out in May and June. In fact Juan and his team had finished making a few preliminary blends which we tasted from the tank as well; I found them very promising.
Blending is the key and quite crucial for Juan and his blending panel that also included Bruno Yvon, the Managing Director of Moet Hennessy India till the previous vintage. After spending 8 years with Moet- Hennessy India, Bruno has now shifted to Hong Kong as a lateral move by Moet Hennessy. Styled after the blending in Champagne for a consistent blend, the final tasting and blending will be done by the panel and it could take weeks to decide the final blend.
Crushing the whole-bunches
A process that Chandon claims to be different than followed by other domestic producers is that they crush the grape bunches together as whole bunches. Dixit explains, ‘whole berries are crushed with stems; no de-stemming is done at Nashik- just like in Champagne. Argentina, Australia and California crush only 80-90% of the grapes in whole bunch. ‘
But why don’t they also do the same? Cost is an important factor, as he explains,’ Juice from the whole berries with the green stalks is always better and in Champagne all of them are required to do so. With de-stemmed grapes, one feels the harshness of phenols in the flavour. Of course, the berries are pressed so softly in the pneumatic press that the stalks are not crushed with the juice at all. But the problem is the capacity of the Press; you need twice the capacity to crush whole berries. And when you are harvesting 20 million kg of grapes in 4 weeks like they do in Argentina, the capacity does matter.’ Juan concurs.
About 70% of the Must is converted into juice- 54% is free run juice while about 16 % is the Press juice. ‘We process this separately and usually are able to use 5-10% (of the total press juice) depending upon the vintage-the rest is sold as bulk wine. This year has been a good vintage and we might be able to use around 10% whereas last year it was less than 7%.’ says Rajesh as Juan takes me through the tank and the wooden barrel area where experimentation is always in progress.
Second fermentation in the bottles is done with base wine on the lees for a minimum of 12 months. Tirage, Riddling, disgorging, dosage and final bottling is done by automatic, imported machines, according to the market requirements. In fact, all the equipment has been imported except the tanks, adds Dixit. Incidentally, the dosage is kept at 10 gms/liter for both the variants, considered very attractive for the Indian palate.
No Stills, No Exports
Although Chandon Argentina makes still wine also, Chandon India does not have any plans to produce still wine in this winery, says Dixit.
Similarly, reflecting on the management philosophy, Rajesh Dixit says there are no plans to include exports and the company is counting on expansion of the current market. If their forecasts and market surveys are any indication, the Indian sparkling wine will have an exponential growth during the next 5-10 years. Unlike Chandon Argentina which sells 85% to its domestic market and the balance to Latin American countries , California looking after the North American markets and Australia taking care of South East Asian markets-Chandon India plans to focus entirely on the Indian market and the Indian sub-continent,’ says Rajesh. This had earlier been confirmed to me by Bruno as well on different occasions.
As may be expected initially from a winery located in the thick of rural area, it is quite far from civilization and no wine tourism is being catered to. The beautiful Hospitality Center looks like the huge drawing room of a palatial modern single-storied expansive house with a bar on one end and a formal, plush tasting room looking more like a conference room for exclusive tasting with private groups. The room adjoining the ‘drawing room ‘is a professional tasting room with individual tables set up. It is primarily for skill development of the employees, I am told by Rajesh Dixit who adds that this would be used also for the skill upgrades for the trade and trading partners.
A long veranda outside has a lovely view of the lawn and the vineyards around it. But how are they planning to utilize it? The quiet 4-person lunch we had after the visit gave me the answer-as did Rajesh. ‘We have the infrastructure all set up. We have no plans to monetize the winery space. But we will utilize the veranda space in future at an appropriate juncture. As a part of the Moet Chandon group, we like to do things in style and maintaining high professional standards. But we have no plans to make any restaurant, public fests or music events in the future.’
There may not be an active promotion of wine tourism yet but the winery is very hospitable. Winery visits are possible by Invite only but can be extended through their trading partners through Moet Hennessy India, with their compliments. But, If you go for such a visit don’t forget to take a picnic basket along. And with only two variants of Chandon on offer, don’t expect glassfuls of the bubbly.