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In India, a wine boom is spluttering to a start again

If you are a wine-lover of a certain age, you may remember a time, around 15 years ago, when the world’s great winemakers beat a path to India.

When the government decided that wine-drinking was to be encouraged to promote tourism and lowered duties.


When nearly every fortnight, there was a wine-dinner in one of India’s metropolitan cities where food was paired with the greatest wines from Italy, France, America and Australia.


   Yes, it was a long time ago. And it won’t happen again. What happened was this: China had emerged as the great new market for top class wine. It was hard to get bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of the world's greatest wines because the Chinese had developed such a thirst for it. Prices of the best wines from France’s Bordeaux region skyrocketed. Wine-makers believed the newly prosperous countries of Asia would soon consume as much wine as say, America.


   In their minds, India was the new China and they had to establish their brands quickly.  In those days, the rupee had not sunk as low as it has now so the wines did not seem intimidatingly expensive to Indians. And prices came down as Arun Jaitley, the Commerce Minister, declared that hotels and restaurants could import wines duty-free against their foreign exchange earnings.


   But even as Indian wine-lovers got used to being courted by Chateau Margaux and Chateau Latour, by Sassicaia and Penfold’s The Grange, things began to change. States levied taxes that made the centre’s duty free concessions seem less and less relevant: in time those concessions went anyway. The rupee began its downward slide and imported wine seemed much more expensive. Hotels and restaurants did not understand how to develop a wine culture or even how to serve wine intelligently.


   And Indians, it soon became clear, were happy to spend money on bottles of fine malt whiskey and Johnnie Walker Blue Label which were savoured over time but not on a single bottle of a very good wine which had to be consumed at a single sitting.


   The sales heads at the great wines of the world struck India off their lists. There were to be no more trips to India to “explore the market”. There were fewer wine dinners and tastings. And at restaurants, wine lists became shorter and more ineptly put together mostly by people who had no feel for wine.


   The wine boom was over.


   Or was it? I have been asking myself this question ever since I went to Captain’s Cellar, the new wine bar/casual restaurant opened by the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi. It is not like a bar in terms of décor or lighting. It well-lit and cheerful and the emphasis is on discovery. Captain’s Cellar has 42 wines by the glass. And you don’t have to guess whether you will like any of them. The restaurant will serve you a tasting portion of any of the by-the-glass wines on its list completely free of charge. (The tasting portion is 15 ml). You order a full glass (or a bottle, even) only if you like the wine.


   The Captain’s Cellar is the sort of restaurant that no other hotel group in India would dare to open and the Taj only took the plunge because the idea came from Puneet Chhatwal, the group’s chief executive. I asked him why he was willing to bet that Indians were willing to drink wine and why he was so convinced of this that he opened a wine bar rather than, say an Italian restaurant which would have been a guaranteed revenue success.


   He offered various reasons but ultimately it came down to this: gut feel and a desire to do something different and more international. (Chhatwal has worked abroad for much of his career.) He wanted, he said, to create a space “where wines flow and stories unfold”. The Taj “needed to raise the bar yet again.”


"Pernod is now launching a higher-priced better-quality Australian wine called St. Hugo, confident that the market is ready for something more premium."

   The food by chef Arun Sundararaj, who now looks after all of the hotel's F&B operations is also international with slightly Spanish influences. Arun has managed, despite the local scarcity following the controversy over the Delhi liquor policy, to build up a substantial cellar and he is always looking for new wines.


   So far, at least, the restaurant has done extremely well. It will take a few months for us to know whether this early success can be sustained but it looks good.


   Which, of course, begs the question: was I right in saying that the wine boom is over?


   There is a strong case for saying that I got it wrong. I spoke to Chandni Dhundia who looks after the wine category at Pernod India who is optimistic. We don’t always realise this but Pernod has always marketed the best-selling foreign wine in India: the Australian Jacob's Creek. In recent years it has found success with the Spanish Campo Viejo. Even its champagne brand, GH Mumm, neglected for so many years, has now started to become ubiquitous. (Though there is a global shortage of champagne this year.)


   Pernod is now launching a higher-priced better-quality Australian wine called St. Hugo, confident that the market is ready for something more premium.


   Chandni’s view is that while the early clutch of wine dinners was centred on the world’s great wines, we are now seeing a more sustainable kind of wine boom as India’s demographics change. The newer wine drinkers are not snobs in thrall to big names. They drink wine because they like it. And with the globalisation of information (there were no social media and internet penetration was low during the first wine boom), people can learn about wine on their own and not depend on people telling them what to drink.


   Her view was echoed by Madhulika Dhall (or Madame La Cave  as she is known in wine circles) who retails wine under the La Cave brand and represents Brindco, India’s largest importer of wine. She thinks that there is still resistance to buying expensive wine which only a few Indians can fully appreciate, let alone afford. But her experience has convinced her that the middle of the market is growing. She says that the wine boom is not dead; we were just looking at the wrong segment of the market.


   This is borne out by the spectacular success of Sula Vineyards, which is now worth around Rs 1000 crore. It is a company created from nothing by Rajeev Samant which only released its first wine in 2000. In just two decades Sula has 65 per cent of India’s growing wine market and Samant is a millionaire many times over.


   So, were we wrong to be swayed by all those Margaux and Latour tastings? I asked the importer Sanjay Menon who is the most knowledgeable person I know when it comes to wine. Menon says that by definition, the top wines are never more than a tiny proportion of any wine market anywhere in the world. More important is the quality of the wines consumed by the market as a whole.


   Have we learned how to match wines to our food? Are good (though not great) wines available at prices that restaurant guests will not find exorbitant? Are there good sommeliers who will guide guests through wine lists? Are there enough retail outlets for people who want to try wine to drink at home? Do government policies let people enjoy wine?


   On all of these grounds, he says, India is wanting. So yes, a sort of wine boom is spluttering to a start again. But, had we done it right the first time around, Indians could have had the opportunity to enjoy much better wine at much more reasonable prices.


   As always, Menon has it absolutely right.



Posted On: 03 Nov 2023 10:30 AM
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