Some time back, I met a journalist here from Argentina, who lives in the US with her Indian-born husband. She's passionate about Argentine wines and wants some of her passion to rub off on Indian wine lovers.
When I told her how the Chilean wines had made their presence felt in the US, UK and in India, her outburst wasn't unexpected. "My blood boils when people in Miami tell me that Chilean wines are more popular," she fumed. "I want to cry when I am told that in India it is the same story. Our wines are definitely better than theirs. Chileans are more marketing savvy and we have perhaps not paid much attention to this area."
Argentina, as people say, has plenty up its sleeve but has been slow in unbuttoning its cuffs. It has been a major wine-consuming nation (its per capita consumption, pegged at 96 litres, was the highest in the world in 1979).
Chile hasn't been a nation of avid wine drinkers, and though in recent years the equation has been reversed, it still consumes only 16 litres per capita, compared with the Argentine figure of 34 litres.
As a result of low consumption at home, Chile was forced to look outward into the export markets when its political climate stabilised in the early '80s. The entry of Miguel Torres in the early '70s had helped them concentrate on improving the quality of their wine and this they did much earlier than their eastern neighbour. Argentina followed in Chile's footsteps by uprooting a third of its vines and planting newer, better quality international varietals, but it didn't lead to visible results.
In all fairness, political instability and runaway inflation combined to make Argentine wine not conducive for importers in the UK and US, which is presently the biggest importer of that country's wines.
The growth in the consumption of Chilean wines in India may have been spurred by the favourable reports appearing in the international media, but they also offered a viable alternative to expensive French and Italian wines. ProChile and the Embassy of Chile have also been proactive and supporting their country's wine trade.
Unknown to fellow Chileans, the Ambassador of Chile, the suave and wine-smart Jorge Heine (he is known fondly as the Ambassador of Wine) works 24/7 to promote Chilean wine, among other things. He never misses any opportunity to promote his cause.
It did not come as a big surprise when he personally ensured the successful conclusion of the 'Top Chile' tasting, where a panel of international experts put together by the Indian Wine Academy blind-tasted Chile's top ten wines, judged them and gave Indian food pairing suggestions.
Recently, His Excellency walked in after midnight to a 'Wine and World Cup' evening of the Delhi Wine Club with his charming wife Norma. If the spirits were high, it was only because we had selected Chilean wines for the evening, nay, morning. No wonder sales of Chilean wines in India grew by 120% last year.
This aggressive approach is characteristic of the Chilean wine industry. As the lady journalist had pointed out, the Chileans are marketing savvy. It is extremely important to take part in wine shows for focused tastings. Go to the London Wine Show or to Vinexpo and you will be floored by the presence of Chilean wineries.
Argentina has been very iffy about such participation. I might be comparing apples with oranges, but that country after suffering another setback in 2001, is only now determined to rev up its export efforts. With production three times that of Chile and with Malbec being a star grape that has done so well on the Argentine terroir, especially in the Mendoza, and Torrontes, a distant relative of the Spanish Malvasia, being the other big performer, Argentines have certain inherent advantages. And with a third of their population being Italian immigrants, they can justifiably claim to produce the best wines from Sangiovese, Barbera and Bonarda outside of Italy.
The previous Ambassador of Argentina in Delhi used to invite me frequently for a glass of Torrontes or Malbec and I'd ask him to organise wine events to create a buzz about Argentine wines. He would sigh and say, "The wine producers in Mendoza feel the market in India is too small to bother about." Maybe they are right.
But could the 64 Italian producers who came to India for the first-ever Vinitaly India held in Mumbai and Delhi earlier this year be betting on the wrong horse? Could the proposed participation of the powerful UbiFrance and the Spanish FIAB in IFE-India 2006 be considered over-optimistic?
Only time will tell if Argentina has missed the bus. Just some time back, a delegation had come from Argentina for B2B meetings, but it'll be some time before we get to know what they resulted in. The Indian consumers already are familiar with Terrazas, being imported by Moet-Hennessey, Lurton (Sonarys), Trivento (Global), Familia Zuccardi (Rhine & Raavi) and Catena Zapata (Ace Beveragez). More will follow in their wake.
Chile is watching them closely, especially because the Argentine wine prices are more competitive and a lot more conducive to the Indian market, which is groaning under back-breaking taxes. Like Concha y Toro (the producer of Trivento), a number of Chilean companies have entered Argentina through the equity participation route.
Daily, I am offered Argentine wines priced at less than a dollar. I am certain there are better wines too at great prices. Previously a sleepy giant, Argentina is finally stirring into action.
My advice to the young lady is, "Don't cry for Argentina . You people need to buckle up.Let the industry unbutton its cuffs fast. There is plenty of room for your good value-for-money wines. You need to have perseverance and patience but before that, some action."