Saturday, May 22, 2010

Indian wine adds sparkle to British spirits

S Kalyana Ramanathan / London May 23, 2010

Indian wineries are no more looking to exploit Britain’s love affair with Indian cuisine. They are looking to trounce the traditional and renowned wineries with products that can compete with the best Britain has in offer.

Indian wine makers are now demanding their rightful place in a world so far dominated by wineries from France, South Africa, Australia and California.

For the first time in the 30-year history of the London International Wine Fair (LIWF) that ended on Thursday, the British got a taste of the red, white, rosĂ© and sparkling wines from eight of India’s best wine markers under one roof — “Wines of India”.

The mood in pavilion 40D was anything but sober — only partly explained by the tasting sessions. Visitors, experts and amateurs alike, expressed surprise at the distance Indian wine-makers have travelled in terms of quality and taste.

Rajiv Singhal, a consultant with the Indian Grape Processing Board, said there was a buzz around the India pavilion.

“People were curious. There was something about India (and Indian wine).”

Over the last 10 years, wine making in India had become a serious business, he said. The number of licensed wineries in India has shot up from two in 1999 to 69 in 2010. There were more in the pipeline, Singhal said.

Cecilia Oldne, head of international business for Sula Vineyards, said despite being a young wine-making country, the scope for Indian wines in the UK was enormous. Interestingly, UK consumes more South African wines than French wines.

After 1993 (after trade ban were lifted), South Africa has significantly increased wine exports to the UK. India can learn and emulate the South African road to success in selling wine in the UK. Sula has its own ambitious plans — the Mumbai-based wine maker has, in the last three months, exported 1,200 cases (12 bottles per case) to the UK.

Oldne said if it could have kept pace, Sula would have exported more than 5,000 cases to the UK this year — an unprecedented achievement in its decade-old journey of wine making.

The market in India, however, would continue to be Sula’s stronghold for a long time to come. Of the 2,70,000 cases the company produced last year, only 7 per cent were exported. This year, Sula hopes to produce 3,50,000 cases. Sula is probably the most visible Indian wine in the UK. Oldne said clients in the UK included Michelin Star restaurants like Benares in Berkeley Square.

While India is still the biggest market for Indian wines, the sheer size of the UK market is irresistible. Despite being a small wine producing nation, the per capita consumption of wine in the UK is 28 litres a year, about half of what major wine-producing countries like France consume (about 56 litres per capita). The per capita consumption of wine in India is just 10ml, which is less than a shot of tequila.

Abhay Kewadkar, chief winemaker and business head of UB Group’s wine-making division, said the route to success for Indian wines in the UK was to see beyond Indian restaurants. “We want to present a truly international wine. Fine wine with any fine cuisine.”

With just about three years since the spirits and beer major got into wine making, UB is already looking at markets in France, the US, Germany and the UK. From the present level of making one million bottles a year, UB wants to take it up to 12 million bottles (one million cases) in the next three to four years. It had set aside Rs 100-crore investment in this new and exciting business, said Kewadkar. UB sells its wines under the Four Seasons brand.

However, Mercury Winery’s Veral Pancholia said Indian wines must zealously hold on to their “Indianness”. He said that was precisely the reason why he sold his wines under the Aryaa brand name in slender bottles with henna designs on them.

Today, Mercury exports to as many countries as the number of states in India where it sells its wines. Pancholia says 40 per cent of the 2,00,000 cases it produces in a year are exported to countries like Japan, Norway, the UAE, China, Italy and the US. This year he wishes to add UK. “We are not just selling wine. We are selling the experience of Indian wine.”

While many of these wine makers are just starting to taste success in India, Indage has already made some serious inroads into the UK market. With its vineyards near Pune, Indage had been selling wines in the UK for the last 22 years, said

Vikrant Chougule.

Of the 400 restaurants in the UK where its wines are dispensed, only 30-40 per cent are Indian restaurants. Chougle said the biggest challenge Indian wineries had to fight was the temptation of selling Indian wine with Indian food. He said Indian wine makers had to address the larger food market outside the circle of Indian restaurants.

Renowned wine writer Oz Clarke, after tasting what India had to offer, said he was impressed. But he also cautions that Indian wineries must keep the sweetness and oak finish a notch lower if they hope to succeed in a discerning market like the UK — an advice Indian wineries might as well use if they wish to taste the sweetness of success in the UK.

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