At a recent interaction, Sukhbir Badal who is also the minister for Excise & Taxation talked about his plans on new industries in the urban cities, reportedly said, "Wait till we have wineries in Punjab. Agriculture will have a new meaning here now- new occupation, new jobs and health benefits aside". He indicated a Maharashtra-like wine revolution for the whisky and country liquor guzzling state.
The location for this home production of wine has been reportedly kept as Bhatinda, the area that reportedly produces about 70 per cent of grape cultivation in the state and could well become the Nashik of Punjab once wines start being produced here. His wife, Harsimrat Kaur became a member of parliament in 2009 from the Bathinda (earlier named as Bhatinda) constituency, so the enthusiasm of CM’s deputy and the importance he attaches to wine as an agro product is quite understandable and commendable.
"This project has been in the pipeline as part of the Rs 15,000 million investment project" Upjeet Singh Brar, additional managing director, PAIC reportedly told TOI. The initial production at vineyards has been reportedly kept at 150,000 liters per annum, a mere 17,000 cases a year, based on these calculations, a mere fraction of the production of 450,000 cases produced annually by Sula in Maharashtra and in a small way in Karnataka for the local market.
Although the idea of growing wine grapes in Bathinda may be noble and adventurous, most wine experts would shy away from proclaiming Bathinda as the wine growing region. One such expert is Avtar Singh Sandhu, the Punjabi owner of Mushal Winery in Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma Country. Sandhu, who owns vineyards in Geyserville, grows his own grapes and makes wine has done extensive travels in India looking for an ideal place to grow grapes.
Decrying the efforts of the government in setting up the Bathinda winery, he had opined to delWine in an exclusive interview a few years ago about its being unsuitable as vine growing area and said. ‘not only is the summer temperature too high, the land is prohibitive. I don’t think with the land prices being as high as they are, one can ever be competitive in the international markets.’
It is not that Sandhu is prejudiced against Bathinda which had a winery that produced undrinkable, low-end wine. He had studied the Punjab region before proclaiming his ‘judgment’. ‘I have done a lot of research and studied the whole belt of Punjab from Anandpur Sahib to Yamunanager, at the foothills of Shivalik hills. The temperature is cooler, the day-night temperature difference is sufficiently large, the land is barren and great for wine and olive trees- and the big bonus is that the monsoons come 3 weeks later, making it an area where the ripening can be complete,’ he had said.
The political will of the leadership to promote wine has been lacking so far. ‘Frankly, it requires a political will and some hungry industrialist who is a pioneer for that region. The land is cheap. With drip irrigation, the water requirements can be minimal. But the farmer wants to know if he would be able to sell the grapes when he harvests. So you need wineries to pick up the grapes. Punjab needs to come out with a Maharashtra type of policy. Since I don’t live here, I don’t have any political contacts.’
This is where the wish list of the DCM Badal rings positive notes for the industry and perhaps a new chapter in the Indian wine industry is about to begin. State-owned Punjab Agro Industries Corporation (PAIC), entrusted with the responsibility of promotion and facilitation of agro based industries, will be the agency handling these wineries.
Punjab is the north-western state which is known for producing good quality wheat and rice, accounting for 19% and 13% of India's total production respectively. But many of the world’s current vineyards used to have grain as the basic produce earlier. Rice is still the main crop along with other cereals in the lowland Piedmont producing 10% of Italy’s rice and yet it is one of the most popular regions of Italy for high quality wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, made from Nebbiolo grapes. Maremma, the south-western part of Tuscany in North-west Italy was a marshy area where cattle breeders thrived but during the last few decades, it has produced some of the best Italian wines like Sassicaia, Ornellaia.
Closer to home, Fratelli vineyards in Akluj, Maharashtra are surrounded by grain producing fertile land which is unsuitable for wine grapes but their winemaker Piero Masi had undertaken intensive research of the soil etc nearby and eventually t bought the land where they are now growing grapes and producing good quality wines.
The grape variety which is cultivated in Punjab at present is called Perlette. The "little pearl" is a white table grape variety which is crisp, pale green berry with mild, sweet flavour and a slight shade of tart tang. It requires less heat to ripen than Thompson seedless grapes being grown in Maharashtra and performs well in the home gardens too. In Europe the vine is used as ornamental, for summer shade, arbours or leafy walls.
Badal Jr., a modern politician of Punjab with a Blackberry in his pocket is apparently keen to wean away the people of Punjab from hard drinks and wants to promote lighter drinks. This bodes well for the wine industry and one hopes that he will have the sixth sense to promote imported wines in the states as well to help increase the quality of the proposed wines from Punjab and encourage wine industry to come up.
As for the wine industry, one hopes that some of the Rs. 15,000 million goes to survey the land, soil, climate and micro-climate, the usual parameters like sun hours, rain pattern etc and the potential wine grapes that might be successful. Hopefully, the state will not shy away from engaging the services of a foreign consultant viticulturist to identify the proper areas for grape cultivation where experiments would need to be carried out to identify the varietals that will do well.
Whatever, the outcome and the eventual quality of wines, the recognition by a senior politician of the stature of Badal Jr. of recognizing wine as a health products well as an agro produce may become a defining moment in the history of wines of Punjab one day. And it may be time Avtar Singh Sandhu, the Punjab-born (Mushal village now in Pakistan) grower in Sonoma County met the progressive sounding Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab, Mr. Parkash Singh Badal.
For interview with Avtar Singh Sandhu, click http://www.delhiwineclub.com/Interview/Avtar_Mushal_Sandhu.aspx?serialwise=821