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Blog: Trivializing the Terroir

Posted: Thursday, 10 January 2013 16:13

Blog: Trivializing the Terroir

January 10 : The Indian wine industry started with big claims of having an identifiable and distinguished terroir whether the vineyards were located in Karnataka or Maharashtra but of late the business exigencies have made the claims less defendable as bigger producers like Sula and Grover try to find means to go around the unfair excise laws and the business expansion plans are put into place.

Sula came into the wine scene a decade ago, followed by several other wineries because of the Maharashtra government’s policy of 2001 encouraging local farmers to grow wine grapes and make wine (by then the Nashik belt had already switched to eating grapes and had become the most important region in the country). Even before Sula, when Indage started operations in Narayangaon, Mr Sham Chougule, the founder of the now-troubled company was quite vociferous about the area having been the center of wine grape growing in the mid nineteenth century. The sheer presence of the number of wineries in this region made the producers self-proclaim the Nashik belt as the ‘Napa Valley of India’ with the marine climate, volcanic soil and exceptional micro-climate in tow.

Grover on the other hand, insisted rather firmly in the early years that Bangalore offered better soil than Maharashtra and the viticulturists from France and Australia had done studies at various spots finding areas around Bangalore to be ideal for grapes in India. Late Mr Kanwal Grover could be rightly described as a pioneer for this region; he came from the comfort of his home in Mumbai to start the winery near Bangalore, albeit with grapes sourced from the farmers with whom he established long term contracts.

All that seems to be changing with time due to the government policies and with other business exigencies (we love to blame the government and at times, God, for all our problems in India!). With the Maharashtra government imposing an import tax for out-of-state wines (I have always maintained and still assert that this was an anti-national policy), Karnataka producers (mainly Grover) were at a distinct disadvantage in the growing market of Maharashtra. So the problem was addressed on two fronts - by lobbying with the Karnataka government to come up with a similar policy and secondly, with Grover looking for a winery in Maharashtra to produce wines for the market in the State (eventually they settled in Sangli and Karnataka came up with a similar policy in 2007).

Bitten by this policy of Karnataka, rather than pushing the states to reverse their stance, Sula started outsourcing and used a winery in Karnataka (Elite) to make their wines. I have also seen another Nashik-based winery, Vinsura produce and sell their wines in Himachal Pradesh by fruit wine producers. Earlier, Indage is reported to have produced wines for South India at a winery in Pondicherry! Despite Mr. Sham Chougule’s strong affinity to Narayangaon for grapes, the winery is rumoured to have imported bulk wine from Australia for bottling in India. Sula is known to have bottled Chilean bulk Merlot for its Satori in the earlier years-again for business reasons, they didn’t grow red grapes and the bulk wine import was allowed.

Th recent example of the Grover-Zampa merger has created an interesting situation. Since Zampa has the capacity, the Grover wines are being produced in Zampa unit and the Sangli leased unit contract is reportedly under termination. At the recent Mumbai Wine Tasting Festival, I was surprised to taste the Grover Sauvignon Blanc-it tasted totally different than what I have tasted before from Bangalore. It was more herbaceous and grassy and more pungent than before; let’s say, it was ‘more like Nashik than Bangalore’. I was told that this was indeed from the Zampa winery and made from local purchased grapes. Same producer-same labels but two different wines!!

Interestingly, the La Reserve, still as delicious as it has ever been since we started drinking 15 years ago, (barring the disastrous couple of years when they had quality problems) tastes the same in Bangalore as in Bombay. It would be understandable if the wine was being produced in Bangalore and shipped to Maharashtra as I was told in the winery when I visited Bangalore recently. I was told categorically that La Reserve was the preserve of Bangalore and would never be produced in Maharashtra. The one I tasted at the Festival over the last week-end (still one of the best tasting red Indian wines at the event) was claimed very strongly by the reps at the Grover Zampa stand to have been produced in the Zampa factory in Nashik. Somehow 2 and 2 don’t seem to be adding up!

Terroir is a concept that has been used by various Indian producers more as a marketing gimmick than in reality. Nirvana Biosys in Haryana is at least honest in admitting that they import the juice made from grape varietals and then ferment it in their factory in Haryana. In their overzealousness, they do go overboard at times claiming that since the Indian terroir is not suitable for growing quality grapes (obliquely referring to the tropical region with two crops possible but as we use only one crop, dormancy problem is there) they import juice from the regions where the vines rest in winter.

There are a few more examples one can enumerate but the fact is that in the absence of any wine laws, anything goes. It is the individual branding that is not only ruling the roost, but the subject of terroir is being gradually trivialized in India. The Indian Grape Processing Board is supposed to be in the process of framing wine laws that might address the issue but no deadlines seem to have been set and it prefers to stay in the limelight by periodic public pronouncements that they recognize it and are tackling the important issue.

Subhash Arora

Tags: The Indian wine industry, Sula, Grover, Narayangaon, Nashik, Napa Valley of India, Elite, Vinsura, Sham Chougule, Satori, Grover-Zampa, Mumbai Wine Tasting Festival, La Reserve, Nirvana Biosys, Indian Grape Processing Board


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