India’s rush to the vineyards

Wine tastings at the Sula resort ‘Beyond’ in Nashik, India (Photo by Neeta Lal)

NEW DEHLI — Wine tourism is quickly catching on in India — a country where public consumption of alcohol was taboo until recentlly.

Increased government support, an easing of alcohol-related laws and greater interest among Indians — especially women — have led more vineyards to follow the lead of California’s Napa Valley by building hotels, restaurants and spas along wine trails.

India’s leading vintner, Sula Vineyards, has built a 35-room resort in Nashik — a wine growing district around 170 km northeast of Mumbai that is considered India’s wine capital. Nashik’s terraced slopes and terroir, coupled with easy availability of water and land, have led it to produce 75% of India’s total annual wine production, estimated at 1.4 million cases.

Outside Sula Vineyards’ site in Nashik, which includes a 35-room resort (Photo by Neeta Lal)

Still, per capita wine consumption in India is a piffling 9 to 10 milliliters a year, compared with between 60 and 70 liters in France.

Visitors to Sula are led by a guide through its grape-processing facilities — de-stemming, crushing, fermentation, racking and bottling. Visitors get to try a range of the company’s classic grape varietals as part of a tour that culminates in a capacious tasting room complete with wine racks displaying homegrown labels. Adjacent is a visitor center, a souvenir shop, a spa and a fine-dining restaurant.

Launched in 1999 by Rajiv Samant, a Stanford University graduate who also worked briefly for Oracle in Silicon Valley, the vineyard has a 65% share of the Indian wine market. It also hosts around 20,000 visitors every year at its resort and wine festivals.

“Today’s evolved Indian is traveling a lot more and is developing a sophisticated palate with a keen interest in wines,” explains Samant, whose company has seen 20% growth in wine sales since 2010.

Promoting wine tourism, he says, is “all the more vital” in a new wine country such as India. “By creating a beautiful destination, and ensuring a fun experience for visitors who don’t know a lot about wine, wineries are educating tens of thousands of Indians about the joys of wine every year,” he says.

Though rates vary, a full-day wine tour package at an Indian winery typically costs around $25 per person including tastings. A weekend package for two can set visitors back $150. Companies and other groups also can rent out entire vineyards for events.

     Experts ascribe the surge in wine tourism to new lifestyles fueled by an exposure to Western cultures, along with the growing social and economic empowerment of Indian women. Wine is becoming especially popular among female Indian drinkers as well as young consumers. According to an estimate by the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, an industry lobby group, 800 million of India’s 1.3 billion people are expected to become drinkers.

York Winery, Fratelli Wines and the Four Seasons winery in Pune — all in the state of Maharashtra — are also embracing wine tourism as part of their operations.

      Vineyards in other parts of India are also keen to tap wine tourism. Karnataka, in the south, is experiencing a high tourist footfall due to its temperate climate and scenic topography. Here, places like Nandi Hills and Krishna Valley host a raft of leading vintners such as Heritage, Alpine and Grover Zampa.

Grover Zampa’s chief executive, Sumedh Singh Mandla, attributes the popularity of wine tourism to rapid growth in India’s urban population. “People are looking for peaceful and de-stressing weekend getaways,” he says. With wine tourism, one can leave the stress of the city behind and “sit in a beautiful vineyard engulfed by the hills and lakes and enjoy your tipple.”

India is home to more than 90 wine growers. State governments, increasingly cognizant of the revenue accruing from wine-related businesses, are pitching in to attract more tourists. Some are introducing new licensing rules. For example, Maharashtra now provides each winery with a bar and a retail license along with its wine production and bottling licenses. In the past, such licenses had to be obtained separately.

Despite the current buoyancy in wine tourism, however, bottlenecks abound. These include an inadequate supply of tourist accommodation, a complex system of excise taxes, licensing processes and distribution procedures, and a lack of competition — experts says around 80% of the market is dominated by a few prominent players.

Still, the government is increasingly aware of the economic potential of wine tourism, taking steps to facilitate production, improve quality and encourage investment, according to Alok Chandra, chief executive of Gryphon Brands, a Bangalore-based wine consultancy. “If handled well,” he says, “the wine tourism sector has immense potential for generating employment, developing small-scale feeder industries and helping the government earn precious foreign exchange.”



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