WHEN Ranjit Dhuru, the owner of the Chateau d’Ori winery, walked through his gently sloping vineyards here in February, the harvest was in full swing. “Already sweet,” he said, nibbling from tight, healthy bunches of cabernet sauvignon grapes. “These will be ready to pick soon, in another week.”
Eight years ago, Mr. Dhuru, who made his fortune in the software business, bought land outside Nasik, a city about 100 miles northeast of Mumbai that has become the center of India’s rapidly expanding wine industry.
This year, with the help of a consulting oenologist from Bordeaux, Mr. Dhuru expects to produce about 300,000 bottles of white and red wines. By next year, he estimates that a million bottles will bear the Chateau d’Ori label.
The aggressive optimism of entrepreneurs like Mr. Dhuru is easy to understand. In Maharashtra state in central and western India, where Nasik is, more than 40 wineries are in varying stages of development. Government officials say that investment in wine increased by 74 percent over the last year.
“In the next 10 years there will be 300 million upwardly mobile Indians who can afford wine and for whom it will be a lifestyle choice,” Mr. Dhuru said. “A lot of them will be drinking Indian wines.”
Aman Sharma, the corporate food and beverage director for the India-based Taj hotel chain, agreed. “There is already a large population eager for wine,” he said. In 2006, the annual per-capita consumption of wine in India was estimated at about a tablespoon, but that droplet represents a fourfold increase since 2000.
Most wine made in India is consumed there. And as wine publications, wine clubs, competitions and tasting dinners have taken hold, gradually, Indian wines with notable finesse are becoming available and appreciated.
Grover Vineyards La Réserve, a cabernet sauvignon-shiraz blend from one of India’s top wineries, in another wine region near Bangalore to the south, is among the country’s most sought-after wines. The 2005 is rich and smoky, with hints of roasted peppers. Its alcohol is listed at only 12 percent on a label that proudly states: “Made in collaboration with Mr. Michel Rolland, Bordeaux, France.” Mr. Rolland is one of the best-known wine consultants in the world.
Indus wines, which is the name the Terroir India company uses on its labels, are made in a spanking new white stucco California-style boutique winery atop a hillside overlooking Lake Mukni, south of Nasik. The two-year-old winery has just started planting a vineyard, and buys its grapes from local farmers who, until recently, grew table grapes, still the biggest crop in the Nasik area. The fruit and alcohol of Indus’s fresh-tasting sauvignon blanc are well integrated, and the 2007 shiraz exhibits restrained richness.
Indian wineries have to cope with challenges that do not exist in wine regions elsewhere. For starters, the calendar is turned upside down. Even though the region is north of the equator, grapes are pruned in September and picked in February and March to avoid stifling heat and the summer monsoon season.
On the plus side, the vintners can plan to harvest according to the ripeness of their grapes, without having to worry about unseasonal cold snaps and rain.
The grapes are usually gathered by migrant workers under floodlights, from 3 a.m. to around 9, before it gets too hot. “Labor is not an issue in India,” Mr. Dhuru said. At his winery, just-picked grapes are kept in refrigerated trucks until they are crushed.
Mr. Dhuru poured several of his wines for visitors in his sparsely furnished four-bedroom guest house, which overlooks the vineyards.
His 2007 chenin blanc was smooth and nutty, not sweet, with good acidity, but too alcoholic at 14.7 percent, Mr. Dhuru said. “We’re in a hot country, and next year we’ll have to keep the alcohol in check,” he said. His sauvignon blanc, in a slightly oaky California fumé blanc style, was another big wine.
Fresh-tasting sauvignon blancs, and chenin blancs, sometimes with a slightly sweet finish, are typical of India’s whites. They are good complements for seafood and for vegetarian dishes like bhindi masala, which is braised spiced okra, or saag paneer, which is a kind of dense fresh cheese in spinach sauce.
Chateau d’Ori’s red wines, like the 2007 cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend, offered lush fruit and hints of bell pepper, and turned out to be a suitable partner for meats and breads seared in the tandoor clay oven. The 2007 merlot was soft and elegant, but a simpler wine.
Many of India’s wineries produce shiraz and shiraz-cabernet blends. These often exhibit earthy, vegetal aromas and flavors along with bold fruit. When young, which is the way most of them are sold, they can hold their own against dishes seasoned with cumin, mustard seed, fenugreek and other musky flavors.
Sula Vineyards, established in 1996 on the outskirts of Nasik, is the brand most often on wine lists. Although Nasik has a reputation as the Napa of India, Sula is one of just a handful of wineries designed to receive visitors with a tasting room, tours and a guest house.
Chateau Indage, near Pune, another city in Maharashtra, is 25 years old and, with production at 1 million cases, is said to be the biggest winery in the country. It was the first to make a sparkling wine.
Although bottles from India’s smaller wineries are rarely exported, Sula and Chateau Indage wines are sold at winedelight.com and winebuys.com
And if there is a fast-track wine industry, can olive oil be far behind?
“Actually, the guy who fabricates my stainless steel tanks in Nasik is looking into that,” Mr. Dhuru said. “He has some land and is planning to import Italian seedlings.”