Indian winemaking scene is booming and turning a lot of heads internationally for the right reasons. Be it our growing accolades at wine challenges and competitions, or increasing foreign investments in the sector, there’s promise in our land. India doesn’t fall on the ‘Grape Belt’ of 30-50 degree North/South of the equator yet has emerged with its ability to turn out a discernible produce. This isn’t easy in any way and the regard is earned with copious amounts of background struggles and hard work. Thus, seeking a deeper understanding of what it takes to have quality crop in this rather unfitting environment is in order. Not just natural, but logistical, financial, and technological hurdles were uncovered as part of this endeavour via exploration of Indian viticultural environments’ on-ground realities in this chronological study.
Challenges begin from the get-go. Agricultural land is expensive (approximately 0.5-1.5 crore/acre in Nashik, Maharashtra) and demands a massive upfront investment. “Even with the right capital in place, to find a balance between land’s potential and its viticultural proficiency has its gaps”, says Yatin Patil, Director of Vintage Wines. Thus compromises between quantity and quality are required as early as this stage, pressing the importance of near-perfect planning and execution hereon.
Ajoy Shaw, an independent consultant and Sula Vineyards’ ex-winemaker, indicates a 3-5 lacs per acre initial vineyard setup cost. It demands rootstocks, clones, trellising, planting material, and a lot of machinery. Alessio Secci of Fratelli Wines stresses on getting the correlation between soil composition and desirable rootstocks correct for optimum crop quality correct. Grover-Zampa Vineyards’ Manjunath adds that there’s a paucity of pre-grafted rootstocks and professional nurseries for supplies. ‘Dogridge’ is a rootstock variety which is prominently planted. It guarantees quantity often at the cost of quality. Imported rootstocks are pricey and procuring them requires flexing the bureaucratic muscle, lengthy chains of permissions, and easily a year-long wait. “Even if this is catered to, lack of research on Indian viruses further cripples the confidence of a viticulturist”, shares Manjunath. Mishandling at the quarantine level can easily lead them to develop long-term viruses or a complete failure, consequently rendering the entire activity futile. With the absence of alternatives, you have no choice but to continue with these old and infected materials, adds York Winery’s Kailash Gurnani. And thus, his observation of even relying on overseas viticultural consultants thereafter as not being beneficial stands true.
With land so expensive, working with a contracted farmer becomes essential. Nearly all wineries have some fraction of contract farming operations and with that comes another layer of issues. In most contracts, farmers set a fixed price for yield per acre. This distances them from the carrot of controlling yields and producing quality crop. Even though there’s a pre-set contractual understanding, motives for farmers and wineries may differ. Ajoy indicates the need for maintaining a constant check on their vineyards, especially for timely pruning, dropping excess fruit through green harvests, and maintaining the spraying cycles. This puts the pressure of developing and maintaining these vineyards and striking the quantity-quality equilibrium back on the winery itself. Sanket Gawand of Vallonne Vineyards steps in to highlight the constant need of educating the farmers as well, which is neither easy nor instantaneous. At times they have inhibitions to altering their ways as it may have failed for some other farmer. Generalisation is common. However, Yatin suggests, if assured purchases are promised over a viable length of time, they can be open to experimentation with new rootstocks, varietals, and viticultural practices. Manjunath also suggests steering towards striking monetisation practices based on quality grades. However with an already existing lack of grape availability in the market, of course the farmers can end up arm-twisting the wineries and contracts. Hence, according to Kailash, it distills down to the farmer-winery relationship and how flexible it is in finding a mutually fruitful way forward.
Ajoy has observed a current and potentially a massive oncoming concern. Growing winemaking grapes isn’t as lucrative financially as compared to other cash crops or even table grapes. Mounting climatic threats are further resulting in diminishing annual returns. The younger generation is also moving away from this occupation given how other white collar opportunities demand lesser manual labour and guaranteed salaries.
With the vineyards established and contract faming in place, now nature take its course. For a country sitting far from the grape belt and too close to the equator, general winemaking guidelines do not apply here. Yatin shares that the biggest natural challenge in India is the lack of a constant climatic pattern, largely governed by uneven rainfall. Manjunath also indicates the increasing threats of hail and cyclones becoming common. Yatin goes on to add that two years ago there were continuous rains in October restricting the spraying cycle and inviting Downy Mildew. Last year’s annual rainfall was experienced collectively in November, and being closer to the harvest it brought its own challenges. Ajoy has observed farmers struggling to curb Downy Mildew this year due to the long tail of the monsoon yet again.
Our vineyard cycle is also quite different and Kailash and Sanket concur on its problems. In most parts of the world, harvest is scheduled at the end of summers and just around the onset of winters, allowing the plant to be dormant thereafter, rest, and recuperate for the next cycle. However, in India, we harvest at the end of winters imposing two major issues. Temperatures continue to rise throwing the sugar-acid balance completely off and ensuring imbalance in chemical and phenolic ripenesses. Also, it leads to harsher tannins in red grapes, which has often been noted in Indian wines. Secondly, with summers to follow, theres no scope for dormancy. This leads vines to enter another production cycle instantly without any resting period, assuring declining performance and slashing their lifespan. Unless water stress is utilised to induce dormancy, there is none thus leading to potentially two harvests a year, pushing producers to prune twice, resulting in additional vineyard management, and costs thereby. Average vineyard life is thus shorter and restricted to a mere 15-20 years in India whereas in other countries it could effortlessly be upto 50-60 years, or more! To ensure a smooth production, constant practice of partially replanting your vineyards becomes compelling, costing another 1.5-2 lacs/acre.
WHAT’S GOOD THEN?
It’s not all challenging after all. Climate is beyond human control and intervention, however the rest can be manipulated. National Research Centre for Grapes (NRCG) is a Pune-based government-supported body dedicated to research, training, and advisory functions for growers. It has aided in multiple studies in various field and has created a bank of data available for the growers to refer to and learn from. They also produce clones, and rootstocks at lower costs and can create grafts if informed in advance. Having them bred locally ensures some guarantee that they’ll operate with precision, are climatically resilient, and have some resistance towards most local viruses. It has financial advantages too. The cost crops to approximately INR40-60/vine against INR120-160/vine if imported, not to forget the logistical complexity, risk, lack of surety, and turnaround time involved in their procurement as well. They are also establishing nurseries to aid the growers in the future, however that’ll take its due course.
There’s a massive scope in catering to this mismatch of influences and opportunities. Most producers have an expectation from the government and its policies, more practical than wishful.
As Kailash said, there’s a need to acknowledge the constant need to have new planting material in the country. Making the process easier for smaller organisations, farmers, and co-operatives to import disease- and virus-free canes & rootstocks will help a lot in improving the quality of current crop and introducing new varieties and clones. Since our environment is different from most, studies in its accordance must be made and shared for better quality produce.
While Alessio feels it will be good to subside and incentivise this kind of agriculture and promote viticulture, Ajoy sees room for lot of automation in the sector and the Government can help in importing latest technology and equipment.
Yatin, Sanket, and Manjunath wish to see and welcome the much awaited producer-friendly policies. There’s an urge to have the license process for importing material simplified keeping its practical ease in mind.
Yatin also stresses on strengthening the NRCG and providing them the authority to import and research with imported material. This can make procurement of international, highly qualitative, well researched, and climatically congenial material available to the growers, which serves Kailash’s point of their constant availability as well. Further, nurseries and libraries of clones must evolve from their infancy stage. Ajoy, Kailash, and Sanket collectively feel that this will provide more confidence and standardisation in what they are growing in accordance to their potential and climate.
India is a big, dynamic, and a growing alcohol market. Over the past few years, the share of Indian wines has seen a constant healthy growth. Not to forget, constitutionally India is a dry state, yet we are amongst the most lucrative emerging markets of the current time. Albeit all the hurdles and roadblocks from procuring vineyard to having your produce reach the consumer’s table, we are comfortably cruising in to never-before local markets and countries that didn’t know of India minus its inviting monuments, cricket, and Bollywood. To be dealt a disadvantageous hand of card in the form of its natural geographical location yet luring global industry’s big houses to invest in our lands with a promising view, we must be holding some serious potential. There’s a due regard that must be paid by the consumer, local or international, in what was served to our growers to what we have produced, what we’re compare it to, and who we are competing with. And then to earn international regard, awards, be compared with producers nurturing generations of winemaking experience and knowledge, with only a few decades of history is more indulging than just the stuff in our glasses. As consumers, we can contribute to this growth and support our winemakers as well. Indian wines have surely broken out of infancy, in a rather short span, and has reached its early stages of adolescence, yet there’s a long way to go. And as consumers we must invest our patience, hold optimism in their efforts, experiment more with various styles, regional identities, varietal expressions, and may be vintages as well.
First published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine in June, 2018