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Viticulture in India from a European MW’s Perspective

Posted: Friday, 21 April 2017 11:09


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Viticulture in India from a European MW’s Perspective

April 21: For a first time visitor to India, it is quite a revelation that wine grapes are such a miniscule proportion of the eating grapes which are also used in wine production to an extent and that the vines are never dormant but the Indian viticulturists are doing a fine job of getting over the limitation, writes our Correspondent from Bordeaux, John Salvi MW who was in India last month and visited several wineries in Nashik

Click For Large ViewWhen one comes to India for the first time from Europe, one is immediately faced with the conundrum of a vine that is never dormant.  Even before one starts to study its cycle one must absorb a few astonishing facts:

1. Production of wine in India is running at about 17 million litres which, due to the massive population of India, amounts to around one teaspoon of wine per head per year.The current population of India is 1.34 billion. This implies that the majority of Indians have never tasted a glass of wine whether for religious reasons or from never having been exposed to it

2. Another staggering fact is that there are millions of grapes being grown in India but only 1% of them (yes 1%!) are wine grapes.  The other 99% are table grapes.

3. A third fact is that a lot of wine is made with those table grapes, which is unthinkable in Europe as only vinifera grape varieties are allowed for wine.  Officially therefore, any wine made with table grapes, in however small a proportion, would not be allowed for sale on the European Community market, although how one is going to find out is entirely another question.

Non dormant vines

One then has to face the staggering fact that one is dealing with a vine that is never dormant.  Intelligently and cleverly, unlike some tropical climates like Thailand and many Table Wine producers, Indian wine producers do not try to produce two vintages per year, but abort one of the two cycles and use the second one. 

I visited the wine region in March, just in time to see the end of the vintage at a couple of wineries, and here I learned about the annual cycle of the vine from the brilliant viticulturist, Dr. Neeraj Aggarwal at Sula Vineyards.  We discussed stress.  A vine that is never dormant gets no rest.  Like us, if you get no rest you get very tired and are almost perpetually in stress.  This is not the same stress as hydric stress and is even more wearying.  Therefore, it must shorten the life of the vine. 

I do not think the matter has been studied long enough to know exactly how much the life of the vine is shortened, but it must be considerable.  This must be factored in when calculating the cost of production.  Replanting more often is a costly business.  Also, can the vine produce its very best results under such stress?  Can the grapes reach the same degree of sugar content, even under the fierce sun and temperatures of India, in tune with phenolic ripeness, and can the two reach optimum maturity at the same time?  Can the acidities remain at optimum levels or must the must be acidified? 

It seems to me that canopy management becomes a vital factor to judge how many leaves are the optimum number for adequate photosynthesis, protection of the grapes from burn, and excess or too little alcohol.

While I was there some growers were discussing a bitterness in some of the wines that was worrying them.  We must remember that, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only place in the world where the days grow longer, the sun grows stronger and the temperature hotter as the vintage progresses. 

With the blistering heat growers would like to pick as early as possible – this is entirely logical- and in some cases are encouraged to pick too early.  This could (indeed can) give a slight capsicum note to the juice, which can translate into a touch of bitterness in the wine. 

It requires skill and experience to pick at exactly the right moment and the window is much narrower than many people think.  A little too early and you get this touch of bitterness and a little too late and you have lost optimum acidity levels and get a lack of freshness in the wine or even a note of jamminess.

Mustiness and dustiness

Another problem that was noted by a world-renowned English wine-writer and that needs considering is what she described as “mustiness”.  In the dry season- and this is during the vintage and before the monsoons, the vineyards are a dustbowl.  When we drove along some of the roads leading to the vineyards we were nearly choked by the dust raised by our car.  This dust gets into everything – clothes, hair, cameras, telephones and mouths! 

Therefore, quite naturally it gets onto the grapes and into the grape juice.  A good sterile filtering can of course remove it, but if it is there during the fermentation it will do its damndest to create trouble.  It can leave a slightly musty taste in the wine, which some expert tasters have attributed to bacterial spoilage.  I do not think this is the case. 

As I have already said you can remove dust by sterile filtering before bottling, but nobody like to do this as you can also strip elements out of the wine that you do not want to lose.  I think it may be best described as “dustiness” not “mustiness.  This is a problem, albeit a small one, but one that should not be ignored.

I will talk more about viticulture in another article as it is a fascinating subject.  The skill with which Indian viticulturists are dealing with their climate is remarkable and the speed at which the quality of the grapes is improving proves that they are on the right track and that what they are doing is absolutely correct. Bravo!

John Salvi, Master of Wine

The Article is based on a 3-day trip to Nashik, visiting wineries and vineyards at Charosa, Sula, York, Somanda, Grover Zampa and Vallonne by the writer  and Subhash Arora and tasting wines of Vintage Wines, Vallonne and Casablanca at The Hotel Gateway, Nashik -editor

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