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Here’s a question that no wine-writer in India likes to answer, largely for fear of offending our friends in the wine business: why does so much Indian wine taste like cat's piss?
I’m sorry if that sounds rude or mean.
But, it’s true. And it is the right question to ask.
There are many answers to this question. But one of them is tradition. Most great wine-producing nations (even in the New World) have been at it for at least a century. They have had enough time to sort out their mistakes, to discover what works and what does not.
Our wine industry, on the other hand, is in its infancy. It really took off only in the Nineties when Sula and Grover started making popular wines. Most wineries are only about a decade old. So it will take time for us to get it right. Then, there is the question of ingredients and techniques. The French will tell you that a wine is all about terroir (the soil, the micro-climate etc.). But in India, like much of the New World, we focus more on the grapes and the technique the wine-maker uses to grow them.
Both lead to problems. In the old days, a lot of Indian wine was made from table grapes that were not meant for wine-making. Sometimes, the wine-makers started out with the right grapes but as the budget-squeeze began, such table grapes as Thompson Seedless were substituted.
Growing grapes is a complex and difficult art. You can do it on the cheap, packing your vineyards with grapes or you can spend more money by spacing out the vines. You can worry about such factors as when the sun hits the plants or you can just plant the grapes and hope something good grows out of the earth. The majority of wine-growers follow the second approach.
At the wine-making stage, a great wine-maker can turn a third-rate wine into a second-rate one. But not many great wine-makers bother to come to India. Those that do usually produce the better wines. (But a white face is no guarantee of quality; there are lots of rubbish European and Australian wine-makers, too).
And at this stage, a good wine requires love, care, attention and lots of money. Our wine companies are not necessary willing to spend that much money or bother with the attention and care that is required.
So, should you drink Indian wine?
Here’s my position: you are under no obligation to support the Indian wine industry if this means drinking rubbish wine. Patriotism is the last refuge of the incompetent wine-maker.
But yes, there are some interesting Indian wines. I drank a lot of Grover till about a decade ago. I am a huge admirer of Sula for its skills in marketing and pushing its products. I like what Moet Hennessy has done with Chandon. I drink Fratelli at home all the time. And I’ve tried one or two Nasik wines that show potential.
As for the rest, let’s just say I am an agnostic. The wines are neither very good nor very cheap. Mass-produced imported wines like Jacob’s Creek beat them on quality and prices.
So until Indian wine improves, don’t feel obliged to drink it because of hype, festivals or whatever.