Article By: Fred Bouchard
The arrival of Sula's wines in Massachusetts may raise some eyebrows, as it heralds yet another incoming market of world wines, and presage extensive plantings of name-varietal vineyards throughout the globe's tropical regions.
An Indian Wine website is listing lots and lots of wines being made in India, but this writer's guess is that most of them would be too sweet and simple for most American tastes. Some of the wines' names give away the game that it's home market fare: Golconda Ruby; Grover Vineyard Rose of Cabernet Sauvignon; Prathmesh's Red, White and Rose; a burst of sparkling wines with names like Joie, Marquise de Pompadour and Omar Khayyam made with blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Thompson Seedless or Ugni Blanc.
But at least one Indian winery has begun marketing worldwide. Sula Wines have arrived in the US via Dreyfus Ashby, with their owner ready to taste and talk. Rajiv Samant's background of wealth and privilege is not an unfamiliar one in the world of wine. Born of an affluent family in Bombay (aka Mumbai), Samant studied in California, graduated from Stanford, and worked in Silicon Valley for several years. When his fascination with computers grew jaded alongside the market's downturn, he decided to go back to India to turn his attention towards some venture more exciting and satisfying.
"I really had no idea what field to pursue," Samant commented candidly at a tasting dinner hosted by Dreyfus-Ashby's Bruce Cole at Tamarind Bay in Cambridge.
Agricultural ideas began to crackle in his brain when Samant visited his father's 3OO hectares of grasslands situated on the Deccan Plateau, ancient hills 1OO miles northeast of Bombay, India's thriving metropolis. "At first, at the farm in Nasik, I grew mangoes, roses, Thompson seedless grapes, and pomegranates. None of these crops made any money."
Why wine? Samant shrugs. "It seemed a romantic notion at first. What little I knew about wine came from tasting it often in California. But I soon learned that the climate of our area (Maharastra state) was suited to growing wine grapes. For the critical water for irrigation, we have a natural lake only thirty miles away."
Samant hired Kerry Damskey, winemaker at Huntington Winery of Healdsburg, in Napa Valley, as his consultant. Sula imported cuttings of Chenin Blanc from California and Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux.
While India's vines are in the Northern Hemisphere, growing conditions are unique. The growing season is from October to January, and harvest takes place between January and March. Sula's logo, a mustachioed sun-face in the traditional folk art style of the Warli tribe of Maharastra, affirms that there is no lack of sun shining on the Deccan Plateau. Nights are cool (45 to 5O degrees F) and days are warm (75 to 8O degrees F). Wines show good natural acidity and tartaric acid is not added.
Sula's planting program is ambitious but not over-zealous. Thirty of the 3OO acres are planted to vine, with an anticipated cap of 15O by 2OO6. "This is a huge agricultural project in our region, so we have government cooperation." Red grapes that have shown well so far are Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (needs thinning, cooling) and Zinfandel. "We're still figuring out which other reds to plant." Samant says that the vines grow so vigorously that two prunings a year are required. As in Maui, excellent wines are also made and prized from tropical fruits like pineapple and passion fruit.
Samant mentions recycling cardboard boxes (wax-free in India) by shredding them with the pomace of spent grapes to form an odorless, friable substrate for the soil in newly planted vineyards. This conservation of materials recalls my own memories observing the fastidious, marvelous no-waste principal at work in India. Cows roam about and eat the banana-leaf 'plates' discarded outside rural restaurants. The cows produce milk and manure. People press the cow-pies on mud walls to dry, then peel them off as fuel for their stoves. The stoves cook the food served to people on banana-leaves. And the cycle renews itself.
Sula employs 3OO people, the largest employer in the village of Nasik. Agriculture in India is still extremely backward, with ox-drawn plows, ancient techniques and phalanxes of cheap labor. Samant is proud to be turning things around economically for his area. "When we first started," he recalls, "there was only one motorcycle in the village, now several of my employees own them."
Sula's two entries into the US market at present are Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. The Chenin Blanc, cold-fermented in stainless, has a dry nose, fruity presence, silky texture, and a fairly lengthy sweet finish afforded by 1.5% residual sugar. It shows food-friendly acidity with little mineral flavors. The Sauvignon Blanc has a citric note (lime) but not as much edge, and finishes dry. Both have substantial 13.5% alcohol.
We tried Sula's Blancs with an array of Tamarind Bay's well-crafted dishes. The Sauvignon showed best with kabobs of asparagus and green pea, and scallops with chili, turmeric, and coriander leaf. The Chenin was delicious both with tandoori chicken (more hot and less pink than usual) and grilled mahi mahi in a sauce of rye seed, tomato, and ground almonds.
These wines have plenty of stiff competition in their price point, but their pleasing smoothness and good acidity, as well as the geographical connection, has been carrying weight in the booming expansion of Pan-Asian restaurants.
By Spring of 2OO5 we'll see three additions to the line: a Sparkling Brut (largely Chenin Blanc and other varietals), a light red (2OO3 Shiraz) and an off-dry blush rose of Zinfandel. Sula also produces, but does not yet export, small quantities of Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (15.5% residual sugar) and barrel-aged Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon.
"We're at the low end of a long, steep curve in winning over the home market," admits Samant cheerfully. "Maharashthra state imposes a high import duty on imported wines, and has eliminated the tax usually imposed on local alcohol products. Our fancy hotels allow visiting foreigners to bring in a few wines for personal consumption duty-free."
Wine consumption among the Indian populace is traditionally miniscule. The Hindu majority tends to abstain from all alcohol, despite recommendations in ancient Hindi texts of somrass ('grape juice') and draksha saz (a low-alcohol, herbed grape wine) for ayurvedic medicinal treatments. Muslims (a large minority) similarly abstain due to the Koran's forbidding. The Anglo-Indian minority - perhaps 1O% nationally - while no strangers to alcohol consumption, have, like Americans, been reared in a social milieu that traditionally favored beer and spirits. Economic constraints are equally daunting - a bottle of Sula Chenin Blanc in Bombay costs $1O, surely at least a laborer's day wage.
Samant reckons India's wine-consuming population to be about 1%. "But," he points out optimistically, "that is 1% of 1 billion people." Of course Western tastes have lately pervaded India from East and West, from Hollywood cinema to Australian tourists. In the thriving metropolis of Bombay (aka Mumbai) with its four thousand bars, the tipple of choice is turning toward wine.
"When people threw a party ten years ago, they'd drink five bottles of scotch and five bottles of wine. Today, they drink 2 bottles of scotch and 2O bottles of wine."
Sula sold 7O thousand cases last year, 5O in the home market and 2O abroad (mainly US at present). "We started in 1998, and our sales volume has doubled annually ever since." Despite the hefty import tax, 2O% of wines sold in India are imports from France, Italy, South Africa, and Australia. Sula's portfolio for India includes wines in the Dreyfus Ashby Group, such as Taittinger, Ruffino and Hardy's.
Samant expects to tackle the British market next year. Far from the days of the British Raj, with its cooked vintage ports and off-year clarets, India today is in the house of the rising sun in the wine world.
"Indian wine!" you muse. "What next?" The sleeping dragon of China.