Wine from ... India?
If you thought Wednesday's dissertation on Umbrian Sagrantino was a trip down a road less taken, hang on to your hats: Today we're going way off the beaten path.
Enjoying dinner the other night at Saffron's, an excellent Persian (Iranian) restaurant in Louisville, I spotted a new wine on the list from an unexpected quarter: India, a country whose wines I knew only by reputation. Naturally I jumped at the chance to give it a try.
India is not a country that many would list among the top wine-producing nations. But that might be a mistake. In today's globalizing world, India - like China - is rapidly developing a home-grown wine industry, serving an emerging middle-class market with the canny understanding that, in a nation of 1 billion, even a tiny (and growing) population of serious wine drinkers still represents a market worth pursuing.
"The profile of the urban Indian drinker has changed dramatically in the last five years," economist Dhanashree Desai wrote in a 2001 report for the U.S. Department of Commerce. "Earlier, very few Indians could differentiate between wines. But now, thanks to international travel and satellite TV, the Indian consumer knows his Chardonnay from his Shiraz."
Although the Indian wine market was still in its infancy and lagged far behind liquor sales, Desai reported, an estimated 500,000 cases of still wine and 30,000 cases of sparkling wine were sold annually in 2001, with overall sales of wine, beer and liquor growing at a rate of 30 percent per year, with a potential market for wine sales estimated at 4 million to 5 million bottles.
"India ... is the largest emerging market for wine ... Many international wine companies realizing the potential of the Indian market, have made forays to capture this burgeoning market. These include wine brands from Australia, France, Italy, California and Chile," Desai said. And, with duties on import wines reaching 250 percent of the wine's market value, there's strong incentive for the development of an Indian wine economy.
What's more, despite India's image as a tropical country where tigers prowl jungle paths, it's a huge and diverse nation with habitats that range from white-sand beaches to snow-capped Himalayas. The leading wine regions, not far from the booming city of Mumbai (Bombay), are reportedly hilly and temperate, well-suited for cultivating traditional European wine grape varieties.
Sula Vineyards, one of India's first modern wineries and, apparently, the first whose products have reached world markets, is the project of Rajeev Samant, an Indian-born, American-educated engineer and economist who came to the U.S. to attend Stanford University and later worked on the executive track at the giant Silicon Valley firm, Oracle.
"One day he ditched it all," the Sula Website says. "At 25, Rajeev quit his job and travelled south to Mexico ('two months with a phrase book'), east to Thailand ("'ull moon parties and trekking'), before coming home" to work on his family's farm in Nashik, an agricultural region in the hills 120 miles from Mumbai.
"Samant found it strange that no wine grapes were grown there at the time," the Website says. "After a little study he was convinced that the Nasik climate was perfect for wine grapes, at par with winegrowing regions in Spain, California and Australia. So he went back to California in search of a winemaker. In Sonoma County, he found Kerry Damskey, one of California's eminent winemakers, who helped him build a winery."
They imported Sauvignon Blanc wines from France and Chenin Blanc from California, planting grapes in 1997 and building a showplace winery. They produced their first wines in 1999, and now have 250 acres under vines, exporting to Europe and the U.S. as well as serving that growing domestic Indian market.
Sula's 2003 Sauvignon Blanc is certainly a commercial-quality wine, bursting with ripe fruit flavors, perhaps more on the forward-fruit, musky and melony style than the herbaceous style that New Zealand has made popular. It's a highly credible product, good enough that I won't hesitate to try other Sula wines when I find them.
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Sula Vineyards 2003 Nashik (India) Sauvignon Blanc ($31 restaurant/$12-$15 retail)
This is a clear, pale straw-color wine, with a luscious musky-melon scent of almost over-ripe canteloupe. More restrained on the palate, it's fresh, crisp and bright, with good white fruit and snappy acidity in balance. An intriguing effort from India, an offbeat but rapidly emerging wine region. U.S. importer: Dreyfus Ashby & Co., NYC. (Feb. 2, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: Would go anywhere a fruity-style Sauvignon Blanc would serve, good with poultry, seafood and a range of vegetarian fare. I enjoyed it at a fine Iranian restaurant, where it paired beautifully with two disparate dishes, pistachio soup (Aushe Pesteh) and grilled lime-and-saffront-marinated quails, Beldercheen).
VALUE: Priced just over $30 on a wine list with a standard markup, it should retail in the $12 to $15 range, at which point it's worth buying as a decent Sauvignon Blanc without regard to its offbeat origin.
WHEN TO DRINK: Absent any experience with cellaring, I'd treat it as a fruity-style Sauvignon Blanc, best enjoyed while it's young and fresh.
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Friday, Feb. 4, 2005