It’s January 2011. I’m a few days away from opening my first restaurant in Mumbai, which will serve only wine by way of alcohol. I put together an impressive wine list consisting of about 55 wines, of which almost half are available by glass. I’m conscious that I must represent Indian wines on the list, so add on the most popular sparkling wine, Sula Brut, with the rest of the domestic wines being represented by a single winery – Vallonne Vineyards.
Fast forward to August 2016. The restaurant’s beverage menu now represents a cross section of spirits, wines and beers. The wine list still consists of about 60 wines, but now boasts 15 Indian wines, which is almost 25% of the wine list, represented by eight different wineries. And we’re certainly not alone. Mishali Sanghani, owner of Pali Village Café which still only serves wine, has seen the same trend on her restaurant’s wine list compared to when it opened seven years ago. So what’s brought about this change?
For one, the sheer choice of wines and wineries available today. Varietals are no longer restricted to the traditional breadwinners like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines are being aged in French oak, and range from Malbec to Viognier, rosé to dessert wine. The sparkling wine market was until a few years ago monopolized by Sula, which now competes with Chandon, York and Zampa.
And as the wine market gets more competitive, while there continues to be the necessary focus on the quality of the wine itself, there is also an apparent investment in interesting and well designed labels that have a story behind them. After all, it’s a known fact that a beautifully presented bottle invariably carries a perception of a great product inside. Recently, Vishal Kadakia of Wine Park (most well known for importing an exceptionally well curated list of wines from family owned wineries around the world), launched an Indian Cabernet Sauvignon called The Daily Dose. In an attempt to break down the barriers around wine being seen as an elitist product, the label on the bottle pictorially describes the wine making process. The modestly priced easy drinking wine has certainly stuck in people’s minds for its memorable label.
Wineries are also recognizing the importance of allocating higher budgets to marketing. Aggressive sponsorship of wines at sports and cultural events means that guests invariably find themselves drinking wines which they may not normally pick on a wine list, but realize isn’t half bad to drink and it’s well priced too! As a restaurateur I find an increasing number of guests then asking for these good affordable wines at the restaurant.
Another very important factor is the growing awareness of Indian wines globally. Wineries like Sula and Grover Zampa have made significant forays into the international wine market. Not only are these wines increasingly being represented on wine lists in restaurants around the world, but they are also winning recognition at reputed international wine awards. For instance, Grover Zampa wines are now listed in restaurants in Dubai, Singapore and Paris and last year their wines won 5 international awards at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards.
Also, collaborations with internationally known celebrities are no longer restricted to foreign wineries. If Hardys Wines of Australia can have Glen McGrath to be their brand ambassador, then Grover Zampa has done one better to create the Vijay Amritraj Collection, which was launched at Wimbledon last year.
Not only does all this give credibility to the wines, but it also means that tourists coming to India are already familiar with these wines. Inbound tourism has certainly seen a revival which has not only buoyed the restaurant industry as a whole, but specifically had an impact on domestic wine consumption. The growing awareness of India as a wine producer has piqued a curiosity in foreigners to try the local product. And if there is any hesitation in trying these wines, the competitive pricing probably seals the deal.
High duties and logistic expenses make it virtually impossible for imported wines to compete with domestic wines on pricing. Foreigners often recognize wine labels on the menu which can probably be enjoyed for a third of the price back home. And given that Indian wineries have sought the acumen of acclaimed international winemakers for many years now, this growing focus on quality means that consuming the local product doesn’t even necessarily result in compromise. But the gap between Indian wines and entry level imported wines is closing. Although consumers may not be willing to pay more for an Indian wine over its imported counterpart quite yet, Indian wineries are certainly confident of their product and of charging more competitively. For instance, Fratelli’s Sette is one of the most expensive Indian wines, retailing at Rs. 1800 per bottle.
And it’s not just the cost factor. At our restaurant, we’ve hosted a few wine dinners which focus on Indian wines only, and they’ve all been sold out. For instance, one dinner was with Karishma Grover, wine-maker and one of the younger generation owners of the family owned winery. The diners who signed up were particularly interested to meet the young lady to understand the challenges of wine production in India. Rajeev Samant was recently invited to an MBA Alumni event to speak to budding entrepreneurs. There is no doubt that Indian wine has landed itself a place on the world wine map and that diners are not just open to, but actually enjoying the locally produced beverage.
So with all this going for the Indian wine industry, which restaurant wouldn’t want to free up some chiller space for as many Indian wines as possible. Needless to say, it’s also a matter of pride to be able to support Indian wines in some small way.