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Sula-Remy May Usher in Real Brandy

Posted: Thursday, 28 June 2012 18:06

Sula-Remy May Usher in Real Brandy

June 28 : If the joint project being undertaken by Remy Martin India and their Indian distributors Sula Vineyards can cross the administrative hurdles, Indian Cognac lovers may finally be able to get a taste of a real grape based Indian Brandy made with the technical expertise of one of the well-known Cognac producers, opines Subhash Arora who believes that the concept must be encouraged at all levels to help the wine industry as well.

Although the details are sketchy at the moment, reliable sources confirm that Sula has in fact tied up with Century Wines of Baramati to make the basic wine for distillation. Contrary to the fears expressed by some in the industry, the wine to be used has been apparently crushed afresh and is not the leftover from the tanks like many winery owners stuck with unsold stocks that are doused with heavy amounts of Sulphur to keep the bacteria away, thus making it unsuitable for conversion.

It is not clear whether Century Wines will distill the basic wine at its facility though sources claim that Mr. H.S Tambe, owner of Century already has the distillation license. Of course, it is not that simple to just distil and convert wine into alcohol, put it in the casks and let it age for a few years to get a Cognac-like brandy.

The concept is novel in India and needs encouragement at all levels. Not only would it help the grape farmers, it would also let the people have a taste of real grape brandy and if Remy Martin is involved in the project, one can be very sure that they would like to have the highest possible standards based on the limitations of grapes. Cognac uses Ugni Blanc as the basic grape because it gives highest fruit to spirit conversion and the flavour achieved is special and pleasant for the drinkers. That’s the reason why China has seen a remarkable growth in this segment as well.

However, in India Ugni Blanc is no more grown. Confirming the market reports, Jagdish Holkar, Chairman of the Indian Grape Processing Board and the now languishing Flamingo Wines in Nashik confirmed that the process of wine making is well underway-clarifying that the arrangement Sula has with Century is a short term contract farming-on similar lines as Moet Chandon has made with York winery until they establish their own facilities for the Domain Chandon sparkling which is undergoing second fermentation in the bottle and is expected to hit the market later this year or early next year- in an effort to catch the current year’s season.

Holkar said, ‘we don’t have Ugni Blanc in Maharashtra anymore. Indage had started growing the variety for their sparkling wines but it was ripped off later by the farmers in order to grow more popular wine grapes. I believe Sula is using Thomson seedless and Bangalore purple grapes now for the brandy,’ adding, ‘it is a step in the right direction because this will enable the producers to plan production for the real grape brandy that would have export potential.'

Currently the market for Indian brandy is over 40 million cases- about 27 times that of wine. But what Indians drink as local brandy is a concoction not acceptable in the international market-under laws of EU and most other nations, the brandy must be made from the distillation of grape wine and then pass through the ageing procedure.

The latest arrangement could prove to be a stronger bonding between the two companies and would also signal Sula’s slow but sure expansion into non-wine area to improve the top and the bottom lines of the company. Remy Cointreau has also been looking for increasing its presence and in the first instance, it might be prudent to work with Sula who has been their distributor for all their products being imported into India including Piper Heidsieck Champagne and Cointreau.  Liqueur. Brandy seems to be a strategy to increase their presence of locally made product, like brandy which has an estimated growth of 20% a year and the technology would be quite helpful.

Although Rukn Luthra MD of the Indian arm of Remy Cointreau was not available, our sources confirm that the company had in fact been looking for such an opportunity and some sort of an MOU had been signed up between the two. In fact, Holkar went on to quote Rajeev Samant, saying they would be crushing around 10,000 tons of grapes in 2 years to make brandy- that would be a commendable performance. It is not yet clear perhaps even to the project partners how things will eventually pan out, as there has been little experience of making genuine brandy in India.

Rajeev Samant, CEO of Sula has been busy with their visiting consultant from California Kerry Damskey in Nashik where the phone connections don’t always work. But delWine was able to contact Cecilia Oldne, the Head of International Business and Public Relations. Cecilia has been recently promoted and given the charge of the wine list and PR for the newly opened wine bar Vinoteca by Sula in Worli, Mumbai. She has also been made the Global Brand Ambassador for Sula. She was apparently well aware of the developments but her lips were sealed, she said. She was quite excited about the 2012 vintage though(‘Our Sauvignon Blanc 2012 is the best we ever had, I think, and we are very excited about our other wines from this vintage’).

Mr Hanumant S. Tambe, owner of Century Wines, founded in 2002 and known for contract farming, did admit to delWine that he had signed a tie-up agreement with Sula to crush grapes for making Brandy, though he admitted that he had not met anyone so far from Remi Cointreau or Remi Martin India. He confirmed that he had procured a distillation license last year. Associated Wines is another winery that has the license. Tambe has been a contract producer for Indage Vintners and is one of the several victims of the almost-defunct company, which according to him, owes him Rs.20 million. He has also been a contract processor for UB and Sula. Although not sure which of the grape varieties would be used out of this year’s crush, the option would be between Thomson seedless, Bangalore purple, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, he feels.

A strict sealed-lips policy from Sula Remy is easily understandable. There are quite a few loose threads that need to be tied up from the information gathered and there are several destructive and at least restrictive forces that may try to derail the project for various reasons. It is highly unlikely that there would be any major roadblocks as it is at quite an advanced stage. The market of 40-45 million cases of cheap brandy would have a big chunk for the premium grade, branded brandy (brandy can be called Cognac only if it is distilled and aged in the Cognac region of France where Remy Martin enjoys an excellent international reputation along with Hennessey, Napoleon, Martell and Courvoisier etc.)

Interestingly, the project might cause a sudden jump in the grape requirements and increase in prices in the short term. According to Holkar, Sula plans to have 1000 tons of grapes crushed this year for making brandy.

These are early days for the wine converted process yet. For one thing, one is uncertain of the quality of brandy that would be initially available from these indigenous cheap varieties. Though the basic wine for brandy should have neutral flavours, moulded in the casks and the process of ageing being the key, it is not certain how the final product from Bangalore purple and Thomson seedless would come out. This is where the experience and expertise of Remy Martin would be beneficial to both and finally the consumer. Indian brandy is growing annually at double digit figures and the increase could be even faster if the product is accepted by the hard core liquor drinkers as it usually has 40-45% alcohol content.

Indian brandy is not recognized as brandy must be made from grapes in the international parlance normally. The step taken by Sula and Remy would be a welcome pro-active step that may encourage other wineries to follow up. Of course, distillation of excess wine into alcohol and grapes unsuitable for making good wines in poor vintages are allowed to be used to convert to alcohol; this is a universal practice. But the state governments have been less than enthusiastic in giving distillation licenses because of the fear of increased and unchecked growth of alcohol consumption. But the industry experts believe this fear is unfounded. The conversion is possible only when some subsidy/grant comes to the farmer/producer from the State as the converted alcohol reportedly sells for only Rs.20 a liter, much less than the cost of grapes and some support to the farmer is desirable.

The unconfirmed but sure-to-happen tie-up between Sula and Remy is a welcome step. Not only would it provide additional revenues to the State, it would encourage a better product into the market and open the way for possible exports in the future, besides helping to add to the bottom line of producers in the struggling wine industry.

Subhash Arora


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