The Rig Veda refers to it, the god Indra is known to have a weakness for it, and European visitors to the court of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan are said to have savoured it. Nevertheless, the last time an Indian wine got pride of place at an international event was at the Great Calcutta Exhibition in 1884. But now the Indian wine industry seems set for a revival with a fizz and a pop.
In July 1990, the sparkling wine produced by Sham Chougule near Pune won a silver medal at London's International Wine and Spirit Competition. And in October, another bubbly made near Nasik, in the heart of rural Maharashtra, will be presented at the World Food and Wine Show in Paris. Clearly, the time has come to once again toast the produce of the vast vineyards of India.
The reappearance of good quality wines - so-called champagne or sparkling wine is made by fermenting still wine a second time - on the international scene is of very recent vintage. The deadly plant-louse phylloxera wiped out the subcontinent's vineyards in 1890, and under the British the attention shifted to improving the quality of beer and whisky.
Good quality wine reappeared with the setting up of Chougule's 100 per cent-export Champagne India Ltd. It was described by The Asian Wall Street Journal as "the most audacious business venture under the hot Indian sun". But at its London launch in January 1986, incredulous wine critics throatily toasted "the Bombay bubbly". It put India back on the international wine map. Notes Sotheby's World Wine Encyclopedia: ''The technical level of production is as high as in Champagne. And the wine, sold under the Omar Khayyam label, is fine by any standards."
But critical success was not immediately followed by brisk sales. The breakthrough has come this year. Exports of the Indian champagne will more than treble over last year to 400,000 bottles. Japan is importing the bubbly, and an entry will be made into the massive US market. Says Chougule: "Now even French manufacturers are afraid of being wiped out from the Indian market which they feel is potentially very big."
As if this were not incredible enough, the first shipment of another Indian sparkling wine, Pimpane was dispatched from a village in Nasik district in August for sale in, well, the Champagne region of France.
For the first time in a century, wine production is increasing in India at the same rate as hard liquor - 15 per cent annually. Much of the wine is made in the unorganised sector, so reliable production figures are unavailable. But an estimated 30 lakh bottles are being consumed annually, worth approximately Rs 20 crore including excise and other duties. The sales figures of Shaw Wallace's Golconda Wines bear this out - up from 1.35 lakh bottles annually in the early '80s to 6.5 lakh bottles at the decade-end. Shaw Wallace has set up a separate division to market wines.
Plans are fermenting with other companies also. Pepsi's partner Punjab Agro has conducted a detailed study on the feasibility of making good quality wine. The Bombay-based Hindustan Export & Import Corporation (HEIC) has set up Grover Vineyards Pvt Ltd near Bangalore to produce still wines and cognac-grade brandy with French assistance. The technical advice has come from George Vesselle, mayor of Bouzy, administrator of the famous Champagne Mumm vineyards, and producer of his own Vesselle champagne. The project has been cleared by the Karnataka Government and is awaiting the final nod from New Delhi. The aim: to make 10 lakh bottles of brandy and wine every year.
Besides Bangalore, which has several small wineries, the wine market is burgeoning in the tourist enclave of Goa. Last year Goa produced 7.5 lakh bottles of wine. The most popular being port, which Portugal is justly famous for. The state is also the biggest market after Bombay for Chougule's champagne, marketed in India under the label Marquise de Pompadour. Goa will guzzle one lakh bottles (half of Bombay's consumption) of the bubbly this year, at the somewhat stiff price of Rs 275 per bottle.
Across the border in Baramati, the home taluka of Maharashtra's Chief Minister Sharad Pawar, is another well-known winery making Bosca wines and Cinzano vermouth. Baramati Grape Industries, jointly owned by the Italian expatriate Cesare Rossi, the mammoth UB Group and a grape growers' co-op headed by Pawar's brother, plans to step up its annual production of three lakh bottles.
Though men like Rossi played a role in spreading wine consciousness in India, it is 53-year-old Chougule who has brought sparkle to India's wine industry. Introduced to champagne and good wines by French associates while working on a civil contract in the Gulf, he decided to produce it in India. After persisting for years, a major French company, Piper-Heidsieck, agreed to provide technical assistance, and signed a five-year contract in 1984. A 100-acre site at Narayangaon, near Pune, was selected for planting special varieties of French grapes like Chardonnay, Uni Blanc and Pinot Noir. The area's flourishing vineyards, already producing good quality Thompson Seedless table grapes, were also roped in.
All the equipment for the Rs 7-crore, 7.5 lakh bottle Champagne India plant had to be imported, as also the special yeast from France for the second fermentation (which produces natural carbon dioxide) and corks from Spain and Portugal. The first crushing was done in January 1984, the wine prepared under the supervision of a French winemaster, and the first bottles exported two years later. It became an immediate hit.
Even as Chougule got permission to sell a quarter of his produce in India, he set up another winery, Indage Ltd, in 1988, exclusively for the Indian market, replicating the entire equipment indigenously. This Rs 5-crore, 7.5 lakh bottle winery began introducing its Pompadour champagne in major cities from May '89, and hopes to sell 3.5 lakh bottles of the bubbly this year. Chougule also brought in French winemaster Yves Pouzet, formerly working with champagne giant Moet et Chandon, to supervise his wineries. Says a confident Pouzet: "Our sparkling wine is much better than ordinary French champagne. Of course, the best of the best are better."
Chougule's success at producing a good sparkling wine has brought other kinds of attention. The Institut National des Appelations d'Origine des Vineet des Eaux-de-Vins, a French wine industry watchdog, along with two wine companies, filed a case in the Delhi High Court last year (1989) alleging that Champagne India had infringed their trademark by using the label 'champagne' and other exclusive terms like 'Méthode Champenoise'.
Interestingly, one of the companies involved in the Delhi case is none other than Charbaut & Fils which signed its own agreement with Pimpane two years ago (1988). Pimpane's birth was under extraordinary circumstances. A prosperous farmer and Shetkari Sangathana leader Madhavrao Moray felt insulted when a visiting Frenchman told him six years ago that the famous table grapes of Pimpalgaon, near Nasik, were not good enough for making wine. Moray wrote to 200 wine companies all over the world seeking assistance. Rene Chabraut showed up in March '87, and decided to back Moray. Advice and equipment followed.
Thanks to pioneers like Chougule and Moray, the wine industry crossed an important threshold in the '80s, demonstrating that good quality wines can be made from the produce of Indian vineyards. With growing demand, fresh investments and improved know-how, Indian wineries promise to finally come into their own in the '90s, exactly a century after they were wiped out by a plant-louse.
Notes from the editor
- The exhibition in 1984 was in fact called Calcutta International Exhibition and was held from December 1883-March 1884
- Another bubbly referred to is Pimpane-the winery was set up in 1989. After exporting 2 containers each in 1990 and 1991, it had problems and was shut down. It was finally bought by Sula under a bidding arrangement with the government. There were appx 500,000 bottles which were reportedly blended in small portions in the cheaper wines.
- Technical level of production by Indage implied the second fermentation was Méthode Traditionelle- also called the Tradtional Method. Only producers in Champagne were allowed to use the term ‘Méthode Champenoise’.
- Good quality refer to the table wine-Riviera and Chantilly were two well-known labels of the time. Supposedly wine grapes were used but certainly there was no fortification being followed hitherto in wines like Golconda and Bosca.
- Despite several controversies, mainly around the use of Thompson Seedless grapes, Omar Khayyam was well appreciated in the international markets-it was slightly tweaked version of Marquis de Pompadour, the label popularized in the domestic market. Some feel, the Indian version had a little more of residual sugar.
- Indian Champagne was the popular name-like all parts of the world sparkling wine was referred to as champagne. However, with its getting a GI recognition, the Association went with a heavy hand and disallowed the use of Champagne anywhere else in the world, including France where sparkling wine is classified as Crémant.
- ‘French champagne producers would be wiped out from the Indian market’- Sham Chougule might have coined this term for Indian wines because later many producers used similar language for a product that was not even drinking well at times.
- Dispatching Pimpane to Champagne was tantamount to shipping Coal to Newcastle.
- 30 years later, reliable figures are still not available in India despite computerization-primarily as alcohol is a state subject and co-operation of sharing information not so easy.
- Pimpane may be dead and gone (Lock, stock and barrel) to Sula but the octogenarian Madhavrao Moray, chairman of the co-operative, who said he wanted to sell wine at the price of special chai in 2 years after reaching full capacity still lives in Pimpalgaon where Pimpane winery is located.
- When the Article mentions other wineries in Bangalore, it refers to the fortified wines in the unorganized sector.
- Goa produced 750,000 bottles (62,500 9-liter cases) ‘last year’ in 1989. In fact, today, there is an estimated production of 1.2-1.5 million cases of such low-ended wines in India.
- Ugni Blanc, also known as Trebbiano in Italy, are the ubiquitous grapes used mostly in Cognac to make ordinary wines and were made popular by Indage-now hardly grown.
- Yves Pouzet, the French winemaker who felt that the sparkling wine was as good as champagne now lives near Santiago in Chile where he has a boutique winery called Tipaume, making bio-dynamic wines. I have visited him every time I am in Chile and occasionally meet him in India and overseas. He has an interesting theory of Chateau Indage going under, but that is not within the purview of this article.
- The Institut National des Appelations d'Origine des Vineet des Eaux-de-Vins, a French wine industry watchdog, now reconstituted as CIVC, Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne